11. jun. 2015

Horror-Unrated Retrospekt #10: Makabre mannequindukker og Klaus Kinski - et interview med instruktøren bag Tourist Trap og Crawlspace, David Schmoeller.

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. 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 David and welcome to Horror Unrated. Let’s begin by talking about when you first became interested in films and how you became a filmmaker?

Hi Claus and thanks for inviting me to talk a bit about my work. In terms of popular filmmaker lore (ie. great filmmakers making home movies when they were kids), I came relatively late to making films. I was a few years into college when I changed my major to film. However, backing up a bit, I decided to become a writer when I was fifteen. I was in boarding school in Dallas when one of my roommates, Tom Jones, he later changed his name to Tommy Lee Jones when he became an actor, was the editor of the poetry magazine, and read one of my poems and said: 'Schmolie, you ought to be a writer.' So, I decided to become a writer…a novelist, actually.
I started my undergraduate studies at the Universidad de Las Americas in Mexico City and traveled all over Mexico pretending to be a writer, but never really wrote much more than a diary or a column about my studies in Mexico that was published back in my old boarding school newspaper.
In Mexico City, I had the good fortune of meeting Alejandro Jodorowsky and seeing his plays – and I vaguely remember seeing Fando y lis (but a more memorable Mexican film I saw during that period was Noche de los Caifanes).
During this period, I also met the great director Luis Bunuel, who was my wife’s godfather (although I didn’t see any of his movies until years later). He had just returned from France where he had directed Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour and had all these ribald stories to tell about her. But, despite these connections, I was really clueless about film.
My wife and I returned to Texas where I was from, and we continued our studies at UT Austin. It was at UT that I first discovered film. A friend of mine was a film major, started telling me about what they did in film school and it sounded more interesting than just writing. So, in 1968, I started making short films…and was hooked.
But I was really completely ignorant about film. Just to illustrate how little I knew, I stumbled upon a gathering in the student union – an old man with an eye patch was talking – it was the great John Ford, toward the end of his life. I said something like 'Who’s the guy with the eye-patch?' to a friend of mine and he said 'That’s John Ford!' And I said: 'Who’s John Ford?' I don’t deserve to be a director after that comment.

HORROR UNRATED: Haha, well we all have to start somewhere David. So what kind of movies were you inspired by when you started making your own films and which directors have had the greatest influence on you?

The first movies I remember seeing in a theater when I was a child were actually horror movies, like Creature From the Black Lagoon. I was much too young to be watching these kind of movies and they gave me nightmares. I had this really crummy mother who didn’t know how to be a mother and she was looking for a husband at the time and would drop my brother and I off at the movies and leave us there for a double feature, no matter what the films were. The ones I remember were the scary ones. It does not take much to scare a three-year old.
I was not really inspired by movies until film school at UT. And the first class that really knocked me off my feet was Italian cinema. We saw the great Italian neo-realism films like Open City, Bicycle Thief, La Strada etc. I wasn’t inspired in the sense that I made films like those films – I just fell in love with movies at that point. But at UT, I quickly grew into a filmmaker, making one short after another. It was a great period in history and a very creative time for me. I made seven short films in undergraduate- and graduate school.

HORROR UNRATED: Since you have directed several horror films I have to ask if you’re a horror fan yourself?

Well, I did not start out as a horror film aficionado. It was just a practical way to break into the ranks of feature filmmaking – by making a horror film. And your question assumes the director in Hollywood has any real choice in the kind of films they make. It’s actually very rare that that is the case. Even less so today than ever before.
For the most part, I was a writer-director for hire. A producer had a film they wanted to make and they would hire me to write and direct, it based on my reputation or previous work. I never had the luxury of saying 'I want to make x kind of film.' Charlie Band had heard it was cheap to shoot in the south (ie. New Orleans), which, by the way, turned out not to be true. So, he asked me to do a voodoo picture in New Orleans called Netherworld. I thought the danger of doing a voodoo story is that it can quickly become so cliché, so I suggested we create our own cult – a group of people with mystical powers, including turning you into birds if you are bad. The location work was good but the film, ultimately, didn’t work because I could never figure out what to do with the netherworld section – and we certain didn’t have the money to create a cool netherworld, if even I had figured out that part of the story.

HORROR UNRATED: Your short film The Spider Will Kill You from 1974 laid the grounds for what would later become Tourist Trap. But can you talk about what sort of film The Spider Will Kill You is? And what do you remember about the making of the film?

The Spider Will Kill You was my UT thesis film and it's available on DVD from davidschmoeller.com. I worked at the Texas School for the Blind to pay my way through college, so that was an influence. But what really fueled the idea was an experimental project I did about mannequins in the mall. JC Penny’s had this very bizarre line of mannequins in their stores at the time; very stylized and very creepy mannequins. The infant mannequins had slight features: eyes, ears, nose, mouth. As the mannequins got older – like five-year old children mannequins, they started losing features. One eye would be gone, just a slight indentation; an ear would be gone. As they aged, they kept losing features – so, by the time you had the adult mannequins, they had no features left; just smooth places were their eyes, nose and mouth used to be. It was incredibly creepy. But memorable. So, I decided to do a twilight zone type story about mannequins coming alive with a blind man who lived in an attic. The film was funded by the Director’s Guild of America and was subsequently nominated for a student Oscar and came in second to Robert Zemeckis’ thesis film in 1975.
HORROR UNRATED: Okay, let’s talk Tourist Trap. Where did the idea and concept for the Tourist Trap originate, besides from The Spider Will Kill You?

Well, besides from the mannequin part from The Spider Will Kill You, we really wanted to launch our careers in similar manner to Tobe Hooper – by making a low-budget horror film. The core to the story was the “mannequins-coming-alive” part. The other was the formula-of-the-day: a group of young people end up at some out-of-the-way place where they are knocked off one-by-one by some lunatic or monster.

HORROR UNRATED: You wrote the screenplay together with J. Larry Carrol who was the editor of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. How did your collaboration begin and how long did it take for you to write and develop the screenplay?

We met at film school at UT. Larry came out to L.A. a few years after I did. I approached Larry with the idea for Tourist Trap. Larry had worked on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which had been a huge low-budget hit, and we wanted to come up with something that would repeat that success and launch us as filmmakers. That was Tourist Trap. We decided to write a screenplay and attach ourselves as director and producer. Just as we were about to start writing, Larry got an editing job out of town, cutting the film Roar, if I recall. So, I ended up doing all the writing, Larry would come in on the weekends and give me notes and then I would continue writing. It annoyed me that I had to split the credit and the money since I did most of the work, but, that’s the way it goes.

HORROR UNRATED: Charles Band was the producer of Tourist Trap. How did you come to know him and how did your collaboration begin?

Larry was hired to cut a film Charlie had produced. We gave the script of Tourist Trap to his assistant, Benah Burton. She read it and passed it on to Charlie. He liked it and the only question he had was 'How do I know you can direct?' So, we booked a screening room, I showed him The Spider Will Kill You and he gave us a green light.

HORROR UNRATED: Did Charles Band have any influence on changes in the the screenplay and the story or were you given creative freedom?

Tourist Trap was a complete screenplay when we gave it to Charlie. It was mostly a psychological horror film. The one thing that Charlie added was the concept of telekinesis. He wanted the Chuck Connors character to have that power. It made it easier to explain and easier to visualize his power. The really great thing about Charlie Band is that he totally lets the directors alone…does not interfere in shooting or even in editing. He gave us complete freedom in making our movie.

HORROR UNRATED: The credits of Tourist Trap also feature Robert A. Burns who was the production designer. At that time he had also been art director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes and later he did The Howling and Re-Animator. How did he become involved in the film?

Bob Burns was part of the Austin group of filmmakers, but I met him for the first time when we started prep on Tourist Trap in L.A. He was a gifted production designer and was especially good at making very little money go a long way. There were a lot of individual artists who contributed various components to the mannequins-coming-alive effects, but Bob supervised them all.
Sadly Bob Burns killed himself a few years ago. Those of us who had stayed close with him all those years each received a suicide note in the mail, thanking us for being his friend, and explaining why he had killed himself. He really deserved a better life, but Hollywood can be a cruel place and the toll can sometimes be very high.

HORROR UNRATED: Yes, it's really a sad thing he's gone. Personally I think the production design is fantastic. How did you collaborate on creating the design and the look?
Again, Bob was really very good at finding great locations and building great sets. The Slausen Museum, for example. The exterior was just a flat we put up at the old L.A. zoo. The interior was on a sound stage, built from scratch.
The attic was this old house on Hollywood Blvd. that used to belong to a Hollywood actress of some fame (but not so much that I remember her name). They were about to tear it down so we could do anything with it, and Bob did.
Davey’s house was shot at the old Fox Ranch. The film was really pieced together from locations all over L.A. Bob was not like another excellent production designer I had on Puppetmaster; John Myhre (who went on to win two Academy Awards for Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha). John could make these beautiful drawings and paintings. Bob couldn’t draw. But he could just deliver. He was probably more of an Art Director-Set Designer than Production Designer – but, whatever the title, he helped create a very atmospheric film.

HORROR UNRATED: He certainly did.

Yes, and Bob also did most of the physical mannequin effects, like eyes moving in mannequin faces, mannequin arm pulled off Jerry’s body at the end and so on.

HORROR UNRATED: Okay. But how were the mannequins created? Was it real mannequins that were altered or were they made from scratch?

I don’t know how he managed to do it, but Bob bought a large number of old, discarded mannequins from an old storage place downtown for practically no money. All the mannequins were real mannequins that were then dressed or altered or whatever. Some of the mannequin faces were made from life-masks. The parents in the room with Davey when he is playing with dolls: the father is the face of Albert Band, Charlie’s dad, and the mother is the face of my mother-in-law at the time, who was just a really good sport. My ex-wife was the woman/mannequin who visits Molly when she is tied up in bed. I think we did a life-mask of her. All of the historical characters were from life-masks (There was a hard mannequin face for each historical figure and then a rubber-mask that the mime wore when the historical figures came alive).

HORROR UNRATED: Were you satisfied with the results?

Yes – especially considering that we had so little money. To this day, I am more happy with the effects in Tourist Trap than the effects in Puppetmaster.

HORROR UNRATED: The composer was no other than Pino Donaggio and when he did the music for Tourist Trap he had already composed the score for other horror classics such ad Don’t Look Now, Carrie and Piranha. How were you able to get him to do the music and were you familiar with his previous work?

My relationship with Pino Donaggio stems from an interesting fluke. Joe Dante had just directed Piranha and Roger Corman had hired Pino to do his score. Pino was in town but he didn’t speak English. So, I was brought in to be the interpreter, as Pino only spoke Spanish. So we spoke in Spanish and I translated for Joe during the spotting session. I was surprised but very pleased that Charlie sprung for Pino, since he cost us $50.000, which was one-sixth of our budget.

HORROR UNRATED: Can you tell about how the shoot went and how it was for you?

Tourist Trap was made in 24 days - that is a pretty nice schedule for a low-budget horror film. I only had 20 days for Puppetmaster and Crawlspace. No matter how many days a director has, it is never enough. Tourist Trap was my first feature so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. So, I didn’t know if I was rushed or not. I just made my day every day.

HORROR UNRATED: How was it to work with Chuck Connors and the cast? And were there any difference in working with trained actors opposite Chuck Connors who wasn’t a trained actor?

Connors was pretty good to work with. He really liked the project and his role. He actually wanted to become the new Vincent Price or Boris Karloff of the horror genre to rejuvenate his career. He pretended to give me a hard time because it was my first time out but I knew he didn't mean it. He worked very hard on the film, which a lot of actors in his position don't do. I won't name names but I have worked with some of them who were bitter about doing low-budget movies after being stars at some higher level. Chuck was a baseball star who stumbled into the acting game as a career change. He had no training at all as an actor.He just did it and he expected everyone else to work the same way.
Jocelyn Jones was a thoroughly trained actor, on the other hand. Her father was the great character actor Henry Jones of The Bad Seed fame. And Jocelyn used her training in her work. (I later studied acting with her before I studied with Milton Katselas). She did these wild breathing exercises and this chair thing to prepare for a scene.
Chuck thought it was pretty goofy. And he said so. Jocelyn held her ground and eventually Chuck let her do her preparations. It's amusing to me as I look back on it now. I can still see Chuck staring at Jocelyn incredulous as she did these wild breathing gyrations. But it was pretty stressful at the time because I had to work so hard to keep Chuck cool about it.

HORROR UNRATED: Tourist Trap is often wrongly interpreted as being a slasher film in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Why do you think this is? And how would you categorize the film?

I teach a class on the Horror film at UNLV where I am an Associate Professor, and I would quibble about Tourist Trap being a slasher film. Halloween is frequently cited as the father of the slasher movies, and John Carpenter has, probably unsuccessfully, tried to refute that label as well. But, since Tourist Trap came after Halloween, which is considered the birth of the slasher genre, it is bundled into this sub-genre. So be it.

HORROR UNRATED: So, were you completely satisfied with the film when it was done? And are you satisfied with it today? If not, how do you feel it could have been improved?

Tourist Trap has become a cult movie over the years. Interest in it continues to grow, at least that is my experience. It’s nice that Tourist Trap still screens and still has a life. Actually there was a 35mm screening of it at an Art House Theater in L.A. just this past August. The prints have turned pink, but people still appreciate the theatrical experience. It has reached a certain cult status, which makes me very happy. That’s a lot better than having your work sink into oblivion. I’ve had that experience, too. Longevity beats oblivion, trust me.
I’ve written a new script called Blue Tears, about mannequins coming alive in a shopping mall – kind of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Dawn of the Dead meets our current recession malaise, but done with a real, significant budget. We’ll see if I can get it made...if anyone has a stack of money, email me!

HORROR UNRATED: Haha, I hope someone will David. Now, there’s the story about the low PG-rating it received back then. For some movies that’s a good thing, but in this case it wasn’t that good. What happened? And how do you feel about it?

We were shocked that it didn’t get an R rating and it definitely hurt the theatrical release. But in the long run, it helped the longevity of the movie. Because of its soft rating, it could play on afternoon television, so there are entire generations of seven year olds who were scared to death by unsuspectingly watching Tourist Trap in their living rooms on a casual Saturday afternoon. I hear it from my college students all the time; 'God, Professor Schmoeller, I was seven when I first saw Tourist Trap on TV and it scared me shitless - thank you!'

HORROR UNRATED: In 1986 another horror movie of yours was released entitled Crawlspace. You wrote and directed it and this time the star was legendary actor Klaus Kinski. Can you talk a bit about what inspired to the story and how this project began?

Charlie called me in for a meeting and wanted me to write a script for this apartment set he had built for another movie in Rome - Troll, I think. Originally, Crawlspace was an anti-Vietnam War story (I was a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam war and served two years of Alternative Service at the Texas School for the Blind).
The first draft of Crawlspace featured an MIA survivor who returned home to discover that his parents had died and his wife had left him. This MIA survivor recreated his Prisoner-of-War camp in his attic and subsequently built bamboo traps to ensnare his enemy. When I turned in the first draft, and in Rome, they had already started building the Vietnam attic POW camp, Charlie felt that America was not ready for a Vietnam story (this was before Oliver Stone's Platoon). He suggested we make the protagonist a Nazi. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I said 'You don’t think America is ready for a Viet Nam story – but you do think they want to see yet another Nazi story?' He said 'I’ll get you Klaus Kinski', and I said 'You get me Klaus Kinski, and I’ll make it a Nazi story' And he got me Klaus.

HORROR UNRATED: Crawlspace is also within the horror genre, just like Tourist Trap. Was it your desire to make another horror film?

No, but after the drubbing I got for my second film, The Seduction (which is probably my most successful film financially), I was happy to be working again as a director, so I was willing to do anything!

HORROR UNRATED: Klaus Kinski plays Dr. Karl Gunther. I’m curious to know why you wanted him for the movie and were you aware of his reputation?

I had seen Kinski in the great Herzog films, but I was not aware of his reputation at all. I only discovered that after I called his agent and asked if I could meet Klaus. The agent kind of laughed, then suggested I read a current issue of Playboy Magazine that had a detailed article about what a monster Klaus was on the set.

HORROR UNRATED: How do you feel about that movie today? And would you like to have done something different?

I like Crawlspace and it still plays on TV and rents on Netflix after all these years. Would I have liked to have done something different? Hell, yes! I would have liked to have had Steven Spielberg’s career – or I would have liked to have lived in earlier times when directors made three or four movies a year. This is the worst time to be a director – they make one movie every five years.

HORROR UNRATED: You’re still active in the movie business so I want to ask you what you believe to be the biggest differences between making movies in the 1970’s/early 1980’s and making movies today – I mean, it seems to me that there were more freedom to experiment back then.

It is clearly easier for an unknown filmmaker to make a movie today than it was in the 1970s and early 80s. I just produced one called Thor at the Bus stop, written-directed by Mike and Jerry Thompson and it’s really a great little movie and it was fun to make.
The problem that the filmmaker has today is getting distribution. Big expensive movies with big name stars can’t get distribution for their films. It’s a tough market and a tougher business (which is why I keep shamelessly plugging my websites, sorry readers!) Mike & Jerry had MUCH more creative freedom on Thor at the Bus stop than I ever had, because I gave them final cut and they could do anything they wanted. But all of my films had (and continue to have) wide distribution.

HORROR UNRATED: What are your views on the horror genre today and how has it progressed in your opinion – for the better or the worse? Personally I think for the worse – the good story is rarely present anymore. It’s been set aside to make way for more and more outrageous, vomit-inducing CGI splatter effects and every movie is trying to take it one step further. I miss the good and simple stories from the 70s and 80s.

The horror film is the abused step-child of the film industry; just one small step above porno in terms of respect. Nevertheless, a number of high-profile directors have production companies that make horror: Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures; Michael Bay’s company, and others I forget at the moment. And the reason is, they reliably make money. Film critics can sometimes be snobs and it’s easy to discount horror. At the same time, many horror films really are bad and deserve to be slammed. But more recently, the studios have been remaking the horror hits of the 1970s and 1980s when it really makes no sense to. The original The Last House on the Left was about a certain zeitgeist of the 70s. You can’t just remake it and assume the same zeitgeist exists. But, good or bad, they still make a lot of money.

HORROR UNRATED: Okay, that’s it David – any last words for the readers of Horror Unrated?

I want to say thanks for letting me stroll down memory lane with you. If your readers want to know more about my work, they can visit my website: davidschmoeller.com. And if they want to learn about my new film: THOR ON THE BUS STOP, please visit our website http:///thoratthebusstop.com.

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