26. jan. 2015

Horror-Unrated Retrospekt #9: Orme og øksemordere - et interview med instruktøren bag Squirm og Just Before Dawn, Jeff Lieberman.

Efter 4 år har vi valgt at lukke og slukke for Horror Unrated. Med tiden fik vi hevet en hel del spændende og dybdegående interviews i hus, fra de store kendte horror stjerner til ukendte independent filmskabere. Personligt er jeg meget stolt over den række af interviews vi endte med at få på Horror Unrated, og enkelte står stadig som nogle helt unikke. Bl.a. interviewene med instruktøren af 'Don't Go in the Woods', James Bryan og David Winters - manden bag 'The Last Horror Film', som begge velvilligt satte sig til at scanne gamle billeder filmpris-certifikater ind til os som vi kunne bruge i artiklen. Og danske Heini Grünbaum som i 1999 lavede 'Flænset', gav sig rigtig god tid til virkelig at gå i dybden med sine svar. Den dag i dag er det så vidt vi ved, stadig det eneste interview der findes med ham på internettet.
Af forskellige årsager valgte vi at lukke for Horror Unrated d. 12. november 2013, og da undertegnede tidligere har været skribent for denne fantastiske blog, Sørensen Exploitation Cinema Proudly presents, valgte jeg og bloggens ejer at flytte de mange interviews over på bloggen så de kunne få nyt liv, og forhåbentlig blive læst og nydt af nye læsere. Skrevet af Claus Reinhold.

HORROR UNRATED: Hi Jeff and welcome to Horror Unrated. How are you doing?

Hi Claus. I’m still doing you know. Just pushing that giant old rock up that high endless hill.

HORROR UNRATED: Okay, sounds tough Jeff. Actually we’re here to talk about you movies Squirm and especially Just before Dawn. But first I want to hear about how you became filmmaker. Was it by accident or has it always been a dream of yours?

Total accident. Never had a single dream about it. I was born with a talent in art, a genetic inheritance from my mother which I had nothing to do with. That showed me an ‘obvious’ life path but not one I wanted to pursue. However, in lack of something else to do, I went to art school and there I was exposed to the film department, and only then did I take any interest in film. But it was taught purely as an art form at that time.

HORROR UNRATED: Was it difficult to get into the movie industry? And if so, what obstructions were you exposed to?

It’s always difficult to get into the movie industry, or any other industry where there are a thousand people wanting jobs and where only one is needed based on demand. But fortunately I discovered I could write, a skill I wasn’t aware I had, so this gave me an advantage from the get go. I could generate material that other people wanted.

HORROR UNRATED: Your film Squirm from 1976 is a somewhat offbeat horror film and not quite in the vein of the traditional horror movies from the 70’s. It has more in common with the Creature features of the 50’s. Do you agree or do you see the film as something completely different?

I was heavily influenced by the creature features of the 1950's, in fact the radiation films inspired my late 70s film Blue Sunshine. But Squirm was directly influenced by The Birds which was from 1963, so it doesn't fit into that 50's-70's decade thing. It’s a big mistake that so many people make, trying to force movies into fitting into trends of certain decades, no matter whether reality enters into it or not. Ninety percent of  the movies made in America during the Vietnam war had nothing to do with the war, yet pretty much all of them are attributed to it.
HORROR UNRATED: How did the project start and what inspired you to write the story?

Well, it was inspired by The Birds but also by an experiment me an my brother did as kids and that can be found in Roger’s monologue about how, in his childhood, he used electricity to get worms out of the ground. I did the exact same thing with my older brother, who read all about it in Boy’s Life magazine.

HORROR UNRATED: How long did it take to write the screenplay and did the story change along the way?

It only took me about six weeks to write Squirm, and that was in long hand on yellow legal paper. I couldn’t type at all back then. And no, the story didn't change.

HORROR UNRATED: Why did you decide on using sea worms instead of…well, any other type of worms?

Because, as Gerri says in the movie: "They bite". Only kind of worms I know of that have those sharp pinchers and scary looking mouths.

HORROR UNRATED: Did you already have a studio interested or did you shop the script around? And how did the executives react to your story about killer worms?

I had nothing when I was writing. No studio, no interest, just sat down and wrote it. Then someone I knew got it to some producers and instantly there was a mini bidding war between them and using that leverage, I got to direct my first movie. Material is everything.

HORROR UNRATED: Regarding the casting, did you have a regular casting process or did you write the script with any specific actors in mind?

I had nobody in mind at all. It was my first film and I didn’t even know any young actors at that time.

HORROR UNRATED: I have read that Kim Basinger auditioned for the female lead. Is this true?

Sadly that is true. She was fresh out of the Ford model agency and incredibly stunning. And from Georgia too. But I decided that nobody would believe she lived next door to a worm farm so I nixed her. What a jerk I was.

HORROR UNRATED: Yep haha. So I guess it’s right that Sylvester Stallone and Martin Sheen were interested in being a part of Squirm?

Martin Sheen was first cast in the lead as Mick and Stallone wanted to audition for Roger. Though I have an enormous respect for Sylvester Stallone, and he went on to have a monster career, I still think he was totally wrong for the role of Roger. Martin Sheen would have been fine, except that he saw the movie for something other than what it was and I'm sure it would have been a clash had we proceeded.
HORROR UNRATED: Tell me about the production and how the shoot went down.

It was a rag tag, non-union crew, all New Yorkers transplanted to the swamp lands outside of Savannah Georgia, very rural South. We didn’t quite fit in. Burt Reynolds was filming, I think Gator or one of those other red neck movies he did at the same time down there, so our two crews go on great. It took 25 days in all, including all special F/X with worms. Of course there was not only no CGI back then, but no money to do SFX opticals later either, so we had to figure out how to do most of it right there on location in the camera.

HORROR UNRATED: The make-up is designed by acclaimed make-up artist Rick Baker. How did he come aboard and how was it working with him?

The producer found him, but I had a great working relationship with him. It was mostly him telling me exactly how it needed to be done and me doing what he said. I didn't know squat about special F/X make-up back then and on top of that, he was using the very latest technology that he learned from the great Dick Smith. So I got really lucky in that regard because to this day, the signature of the film is still the worm face shot designed by Rick.
HORROR UNRATED: Now where does one go to get so many sea worms? And do you have any idea how many you used in the film?

I think we used around a quarter of a million of them, all off the coast of New England.

HORROR UNRATED: I have always wondered about what you did with the rest of the worms after the production wrapped. Did you sell them or throw then into the sea or what?

Actually there were none left, they were all dead and many of them from electrocution!

HORROR UNRATED: About the original poster artwork painting (with all the colors and the skull), I have always loved that and I think it’s a shame it hasn’t been used as cover artwork for the DVD release. But who came up with the idea for the poster and did you have anything to do with it?

I had nothing at all to do with that poster, it was all the marketing department at A.I.P. Didn’t have any input on the MGM DVD either. Purely marketing people.
HORROR UNRATED: I know that you were hired to do Just before Dawn and that you re-wrote the script. But why did you feel you had to change the screenplay? And how much did you re-write and how drastic were the changes you made, compared to the original script?

It was what’s called a ‘page one’ re-write. I kept the characters names and the central premise of kids going up to the woods to check out some land that one of them owned, but I changed almost everything else. The original title was The Last Ritual which had to do with some hillbilly snake ritual which I thought was just stupid. The original script featured hand drawn pictures of the scenes in the script if you can believe it, along with rambling descriptions that went on sometimes for pages at a time. So I basically took the central premise and transformed the script into a straight on homage to Deliverence.

HORROR UNRATED: So how were the changes you made received by the company that employed you?

Well, they liked it enough to go right into production, which probably shows how much they disliked The Last Ritual.

HORROR UNRATED: Actually I have heard that the screenplay was originally entitled The Tennessee Mountain Murders. Was it your idea to change the title?

I never saw that title. What was given to me was called The Last Ritual. Since the first thing I did was to take the ritual out, that title wouldn’t make any sense at all so it needed to be changed, and I wanted something more mysterious, thought provoking. I recall coming up with the title Just before Dawn on the subway. Arowitz claims it was his idea. I don’t see how, since I only met him that one time before I even touched his script and what I met him on was called The Last Ritual. There was no reason for him to give me an alternate title then, because he had no way of knowing I would be taking out all the snake ritual stuff. I never spoke to him after that and nobody from the company suggested Just before Dawn as a title to me, that’s for sure. But since that’s his only produced screenplay, and it’s been 30 years, I’ll let that be his claim to fame.

HORROR UNRATED: The idea for the twins – who came up with that? Because I have read some different stories about it, for instance, screenwriter Mark Arywitz claims that he came up with that idea. Can you tell me about what’s up with that?

Arywitz takes my saying I came up with the idea of the twins all wrong. His script did feature twins, I never said otherwise.  But they weren’t identical and both appeared at the same time from the beginning, and spoke throughout the movie, just like the other hillbilly characters. They were not ‘demons’ or inbred monster types, just cliché hillbillies. And they both wanted to marry Connie as I recall. That’s where that snake ritual thing came in, winner gets the girl, or girl survives it, gets one of them, or some such nonsense. All awful stuff that sounds even worse now. So I was referring to the way the twins were drawn as characters and depicted in the movie, silent, giggling mutants, and the twist of them only being revealed as identical twins half way though the film, not the idea of twin hillbillies which not only has no twist at all, but the fact that they’re twins meant nothing in his script. You won’t find anything similar to the twins in Just before Dawn in The Last Ritual, trust me.

HORROR UNRATED: I’ve read that the film’s script had many religious elements in its earlier drafts. What made you decide to lose them?

They were corny, cliché and didn’t work at all. I saw that documentary on the DVD by William Hellfire, very well done I must say, where Arywitz implies that the religious stuff was too controversial or edgy or some such nonsense.  I took it all out simply because it was terrible, period. Nobody gave me any instructions at all, other than to keep the general set up and don’t change the characters names so the foreign buyers wouldn’t freak out. As far as religious meaning goes, I opted for the religious elements, if you can call it that, in Deliverance where mother nature was the only ‘God.’
HORROR UNRATED: As a director, were you in any way inspired by other horror films of the time? And if no, what inspired you when doing Just before Dawn?

I was inspired by a lot of films, but not many horror films, if any. I was a Kubrick freak, Antonioni, Felini, etc. And like I said, Deliverance blew me away, both the book and the movie. You might say I was obsessed with it when I did Just before Dawn and that really shows, even now. It was my tuning into nature, both what we attribute to ‘mother nature’ – trees, mountains, animals and human nature are all part of Mother Nature - that allows the film to resonate so many years later.

HORROR UNRATED: Tell me about the production.

Well we shot it on 35mm. My DP, Joel King, was an expert on lighting, but the effects he was going for took way more time than we had. So it was a constant battle between us regarding time. But when I saw the results, I was glad he gave me such a hard time because the lighting is fantastic.

HORROR UNRATED: When you made Just before Dawn, horror movies were a huge success, and your film also holds many of the elements you would expect of a genre film of that time. But just like Squirm, it still feels much like an individual film. How do you achieve this individuality – how do you work to accomplish that? And is it your intention?

It's not my intention. I don’t work to be me, I just AM me. Since I mostly write what I direct, it’s stuff that’s individual to me, my personality. The more films I make, the more the audience will know who I am. Whether they give a crap or not, is not part of the equation, because that’s something I have no control over, and really wouldn't want to if I could. Well, I take that back because if I could deem them all as popular as Avatar I’d not only be rich but I could make three movies a year!

HORROR UNRATED: The climatic confrontation between one of the killers and the 'final- girl' - the scene where the killer chokes to death on the girl's fist - is quite unexpected and actually also very graphic compared to the rest of the film. It’s very effective moment but was it in the original screenplay or did you come up with that?

The Last Ritual? Please, nothing like it. He had that ‘snake ritual’ as his ‘climax.’ I came up with that bit by eliminating everthing I could think of that had been done before, then try to thing of what she could do with what’s left. Thirty seconds later I had the idea. Arywitz is on record saying he didn’t like it, it wasn’t believable or something and he could have done better. Wonder why he didn’t in his several drafts of The Last Ritual when he had the chance.

HORROR UNRATED: So were you simply trying to find a new and more creative way to dispose of the killer? Or is there another idea behind the quite intimate nature of the “fist-in-mouth” scene?

Well, if you check out how I staged it and filmed it, you’ll see that she’s taking the ‘dominate’ sexual role, and is sort of, in lack of a better expression, fist fucking him in the mouth.

HORROR UNRATED: Are you completely satisfied with Squirm and Just before Dawn?

I can’t imagine ever being completely satisfied with any film, but between the two, I’m way more satisfied with Just before Dawn. The reason is, that Squrim was my first and Just before Dawn was my third movie, so I knew so much more about filmmaking in general.

HORROR UNRATED: Regarding the DVD release of Just before Dawn, I have to ask you if there will be a new release with remastered picture and sound? All though it didn’t bother me at all, I guess it’s safe to say the DVD print isn’t that pretty. So do you know if there will be a remastered release?

Don’t hold your breath, I don't see that happening. If they didn’t go back to the original negative for the DVD release you saw, which they didn’t, I’m sure they won’t do it in the future. Funny how people think I have control over these things. I was a hired hand on Just before Dawn – re-write and direct, thank you very much.

HORROR UNRATED: Do you have anything at all to do with the releases of your movies?

The short answer is ‘no’, but funny enough, that’s pretty much the long answer too.

HORROR UNRATED: So did you find any of the other slasher and horror movies from back then in the late 70’s and early 80’s interesting?

Only Halloween. Period. That movie rocked my world. The ones that came after it had zero impact on me. Maybe that’s why I went so far off towards Deliverance with Just before Dawn, I didn't want it to be anything like what later would be called Slasher movies.  In fact, truth be told, I take calling Just before Dawn a slasher movie as an insult. I understand it because of the general storyline that’s so similar to films where it’s all about killing off lame brained teens in new ways, but that  was never my intention to be anything like those films when I made that. Funny how Deliverance is never referred to as a slasher film – I think that’s because it was not only based on a serious bestseller, but featured some of the biggest A list stars of the day along with an A list director and huge budget. But the bare storyline matches up with the later slashers, just as much as Just before Dawn does.

HORROR UNRATED: I guess you do have a point there. Just before Dawn became your last true horror film, if I may call it that now, except for Satan’s Little Helper (2004) witch is more of a horror comedy. Is there any specific reason for that or did you just grow tired of the genre?

I have so many other interests and I just grew with them and went with the flow. I never really saw myself as a horror filmmaker. Still don’t. My documentary work for instance is equally important to me.

HORROR UNRATED: So would you like to return to the horror genre in the future?

Ask me after I think I was hit with a great idea and I’ll say yes!  Ask me before that and I’ll say ‘I don’t know.’ It starts and ends with a strong idea, and that’s something that can’t be predicted, since it has nothing at all to do with what others are doing in the genre.

HORROR UNRATED: So we shouldn’t expect Squirm 2 or Just before Dawn 2 any time soon?

Nothing like that in the works at all. Although I did recently re-unite with Jamie Rose and Debbie Benson and we riffed on what a Just before Dawn 2 would be if there ever was such a thing.

HORROR UNRATED: Okay, well you'll have to pitch me what you came up with sometime. Since you’re still active in the movie business, I would like to hear what you think are the biggest differences between doing a film in the 70’s or 80’s and a film here in 2010?

It’s changed from top to bottom. When we did films back then, there was only one goal, one target market, and that was getting our movies into theaters. There was no such thing as video when I did Squirm. It was a movie, plain and simple. Of course, everyone knew that after the theaters came television, but that was a secondary sale. Now, very little of the horror genre is targeted to theaters, with thousands of variations of Zombie movies being shot every day with cameras purchased at Best Buy, and at best, will show up on the Internet, another thing that didn’t exist back in the day. So that’s about as much change as you can get.
HORROR UNRATED: Would you say there were more freedom to experiment in moviemaking back in the 70’s and the beginning of the 80’s? Here I’m thinking of the new wave of independent filmmakers that emerged back then.

There was more freedom to experiment in movies for sure, but today’s freedom is seen in the digital movies that are produced and targeted for the internet or other delivery forms. So the experimentation has just sort of shifted in my view.

HORROR UNRATED: Any last words for the readers of Horror Unrated?

Keep your knees loose, and don’t let them talk you down.

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