A true genre jack-of-all-trades, Daniel Roebuck has been in over 70 films (from the indie pioneer The River's Edge to The Devil's Rejects) and 60 TV shows (most notably as Leslie Arzt on the hit series Lost). More recently, Dan has turned to writing, producing and directing, contributing fan-fave Monsterama shorts to the Monsters Channel. Scott Voisin recently shared a rare free moment with the busy multi-hyphenate.
Scott Voisin: What is Monsterama and how did it come to life?
Daniel Roebuck: Monsterama is a series of interstitial documentaries we did for the Monsters Channel on the Voom high definition network, so ultimately I think we were producing them for six or seven hundred people! Which was okay because I was really making them for myself, so whoever else saw them was icing on the cake. Kevin Burns is a friend of mine, and I would imagine your readers know Kevin's work. He did the fabulous Star Wars documentary, the Planet of the Apes documentary, and the best A&E bios you'll ever see in your life are all his. Kevin asked me and a guy named Taylor White -- who's a journalist out here in L.A. -- if we would come aboard and do these shorts for him, and then he hooked us up with Rob Hampton, who's been working in documentary TV for awhile. The thought was that Taylor's a writer, I'm a bit of a writer and an idiot who has a lot of stuff, and Rob Hampton is a fan who's also a great writer and a great producer and director. So Kevin brought us all together, and I did eighteen episodes, Rob did twelve and Taylor did six. It was funny because I was doing a TV series at the time, A Minute with Stan Hooper, so my dressing room at Paramount was really my office for Monsterama. All of the other actors would be trying to hit on each other and do crossword puzzles and talk to their agents, and I would run back to my room and call Sideshow Toys and say, "Okay, we're gonna come Thursday morning at 5am, you gotta be there." Those eighteen shows I did meant a lot to me. They ranged from ten minutes to seventeen minutes long. We covered Aurora models, Munsters collectibles, Sideshow Toys, Planet of the Apes collectibles and Don Post masks, which is a very special thing to me. Anytime you were watching a high-def movie on the Monsters Channel, if the movie was over early, then one of our documentaries would come up.
SV: Are there any plans to release these on DVD?
DR: That would really be up to Kevin Burns because I was kind of work-for-hire, but I hope they do because they're really beautifully produced. I've got to give a lot of credit to Kevin and his organization because the post-production on them was fabulous. I don't have a high-def TV, nor do I have the Voom network, but during post-production I'd be looking at the monitor and think, "Geez, you can reach in there and grab that thing." It looked like something from Willy Wonka, where the kid was in the little TV. It was a great experience for me working under someone else's eye. I've written before and generally worked alone, but Kevin and his people certainly knew what they were doing, and they were very, very good in moving us in the direction that was appropriate.
SV: How did you guys come to agree on the subjects? Was there a lot of, "Oh, we've got to do this because I loved it as a kid" kind of thing?
DR: There was a lot of that. The thing about us is we're all collectors and we're all nerds. Kevin would like you to believe that he's a big-time VP at a major studio, and that's true, but at night we sit around and watch Munsters episodes on 16-millimeter at his house! We started with what we loved and what we had access to, and just kind of took the series from there. When I left, they did a piece on McFarlane Toys, which I didn't really have an interest in, and Stan Winston Studios and other places that I didn't really have a connection to. But I hope they put it out on DVD because it was shot beautifully, and Cassandra Peterson, in the guise of Elvira, did our narration.
SV: You mentioned having a special connection to Don Post masks. What is it?
DR: I would read the Famous Monsters magazine, and the other guys would be like, "Hey, I've got a Playboy over here, and I really want to bang this 31-year old model." I'd be looking at the Don Post stuff and go, "Hey, I really want to buy this $39.95 monster mask." I'll bet you I looked at a Don Post mask every day of my life from the time I discovered Famous Monsters when I was eleven until... uh... well, this morning when I looked at the ones in my home. I loved the makeup, and I wanted to be a makeup man for awhile. I was intrigued by how it all worked, by the Jack Pierce creations, by the Planet of the Apes stuff, and I just wanted to be part of that world. Ultimately, I found that I didn't have a talent for that, but I did have a talent for spending the money to buy the f--kin' masks!
SV: As a fan of Forry Ackerman's magazine, did you ever get to take the tour of his mansion?
DR: I did, a number of times. I moved to LA in 1984 at the end of February, and the first weekend in March, I was at the Ackermansion. I don't know what other people do when they get here for the first time, but that was at the top of my list. When Forry had to vacate his home after he was sick for awhile and move into smaller digs, I was briefly on the crew helping clean up, and that was an eye-opening experience. Just the amount of stuff in there was incredible.
SV: I read that he had to sell a large chunk of his collection. Were you able to get ahold of anything?
DR: I did get a few cool pieces. I got a very old Don Post mask, and a painting of Jack Pierce, and an autograph by Mel Brooks on a picture from Young Frankenstein of Mel and Peter Boyle laughing. So I got stuff like that, just little things. I have a place in my collection where you can see stuff from Forry's house, and that makes me happy.
SV: What else is in your collection?
DR: It's so crazy. I collected paper for a long time, but when I moved to LA, I didn't really have room to display it, so I went into figural stuff. The craziest pieces I have are a beautiful life-size wax Lugosi Dracula that Henry Alvarez made, an 8-foot wax Frankenstein, a full-size Phantom of the Opera, a full-size Creature from the Black Lagoon, a full-size Fly, and two characters from the Planet of the Apes that are both wearing original costumes from the movies. I also have a Bride of Frankenstein which, in reality, is my daughter's. When we got the full-size Frankenstein, my daughter, Grace --being the brilliant child of me -- had the wherewithal to say in front of her mother, "Please, please can I have a full-size Bride of Frankenstein for Christmas to go with that?" Rarely has a gauntlet been dropped so eloquently.
SV: I was going to ask if your kids were old enough to appreciate these items or if they think of your collection as just a bunch of Dad's weird stuff.
DR: I think maybe a little of both. My son, Buster, has a Wolfman collection. That's his favorite monster, and they do enjoy it a lot. I'll tell ya, Scott, the blessing of these kids is they sit down with their old man and we watch Abbott and Costello and The Honeymooners and Burns and Allen. One time there was a showing of A Night to Remember at a revival house here, and we took the kids. They sat there for two hours and didn't move a muscle.
SV: That's pretty cool. If I'm watching something in black and white and my daughter comes in the room, she wants to know why the TV's broken.
DR: Well, can't you just say, "Sit down with Daddy and watch this because you'll be entertained?"
SV: I haven't been able to interest her in any of the classics. She's kind of in her own world, watching things like Lizzie McGuire.
DR: Yes, I know of the Lizzie McGuire world. My daughter's in the Full House mode right now, which is as close to hell on earth as anything I can possibly imagine.
SV: I know what you mean. My daughter watches Full House religiously and has the viewing schedule memorized.
DR: Now to me, watching those three guys with mullets, that's horror!
SV: Amen. Speaking of horror, I wanted to ask you about Rob Zombie. He was featured in an episode of Monsterama about artist Basil Gogos.
DR: Yeah, Rob has a beautiful collection of Gogos paintings. It's a fabulous, fabulous collection.
SV: Did working with him on that ultimately lead to your appearance in The Devil's Rejects?
DR: You know, it's kind of funny how we met. I first met Rob at a model shop in North Hollywood. I didn't know who Rob Zombie was, and that's not an insult to Rob, but I listen to showtunes. My friend who was with me said, "Mr. Zombie, it's such an honor to meet you." And I'm thinking, "Whoa... Did you just call this dude Mr. Zombie?" So we were introduced and spent a few moments together. Years later, we were at a screening of Elvira's Hidden Hills, and I went over to say "Hi," and he said, "You know, I was just thinking I've got to come say 'Hi' to you," because we both knew that we had a similar interest, and we hit it off. He and I have been working on a project. I don't know how it will come to fruition or what his involvement will be, but I got the rights from Sam Sherman to do a movie based on Sam Sherman and Al Adamson and the creation of all those IIP films. We wrote a script called Murder A Go-Go, which I hope Rob will be involved with in some way. It's everything you'd want it to be. If you liked Satan's Sadists and The Female Bunch and Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, you'll love Murder A Go-Go.
SV: Are you going to produce the movie as well as act in it?
DR: Yeah, I'm essentially the producer, I co-wrote it, and my dream is to play Al Adamson. We have the script and we have the rights, and now we have to do the Hollywood dance to get the right people involved. I probably won't direct it because the scope of it is pretty large, which is why I went to Rob initially to have him direct it. I love the performances he gets in his movies.
SV: I noticed you appear in The Devil's Rejects with Duane Whitaker, who you co-starred with in Eddie Presley.
DR: In Devil's Rejects, I have to interview a guy who's an expert on satanism for this TV show the main characters are watching. I had already introduced Rob to Duane, and Rob said, "Well, what about Duane Whitaker playing this other character?" So we ended up doing that together. Eddie Presley had an interesting life. It began as a one-man show that Duane did about an Elvis Presley impersonator who falls apart on stage. His one-man show was a 60 minute monologue that this character spews when his tape of "Suspicious Minds" gets caught in the machine and he can't sing. When Duane expanded it into a movie with Jeff Burr directing, they opened it up. In the play, I think Duane had either a comedian or a ventriloquist as an opening act before Eddie Presley came out. For the movie, I was Keystone the Magician, which is an acknowledgement of me coming from the keystone state of Pennsylvania. They needed an opening act that could be more awful than Eddie. I pulled from my past because I used to be a magician as a kid to make money. So I just kind of did my act badly, or maybe I did it the same way I did when I was younger and it was just bad, I don't know. But it was a fun movie. Duane and I have worked together a few times. We did another movie that he wrote and directed called Together & Alone, which is a nice slice-of-life in Hollywood. He wrote Murder A Go-Go with me, and he was the first guy I thought of because he's so excellent with dialogue and has a good sense of these kind of fringe characters. Duane and I met each other as extras on General Hospital 21 years ago, and we couldn't be more opposite as far as what we like, what we read, what we think and what we watch, but somehow we've maintained a friendship and a mutual respect for each other.
SV: Two years after being an extra on a soap opera, you made quite an impression in The River's Edge. How old were you when you made it?
DR: I was 23. What I remember on that set was that I was the grandfather, the old guy. Keanu (Reeves) was younger than me, Crispin (Glover) was younger than me, and I think Ione (Skye) and Roxana Zal were like 15 or something like that. At the time, I had no idea how cool River's Edge was. I wasn't that smart to know that it would be this kind of seminal movie. I think back on that and how lucky I was to work with Dennis Hopper. I've never been an actor who plays a character and then brings that character into my house. I'm playing the killer in River's Edge, but when I come home, my wife expects Dan to walk through the door. There are other actors who do it a different way, and no way is good and no way is wrong. I remember that Dennis, up to the moment he had to shoot, was out of it and didn't think about it, and then when we shot, his performance was so beautiful and natural. It was cool.
SV: Were you prepared for the reaction and the attention the movie received?
DR: No, I wasn't. It was no blockbuster, but it made everyone's ten-best list. You know, Scott, honestly, had I been more adept at things, I would have done what Crispin did and Keanu did and taken advantage of being in the movie. When I look back, I feel it was an opportunity missed to kind of move me to the next level. It was like everybody got to step up, and my work was as hard as anybody's, but I didn't really move forward that much. I didn't use it as a stepping-stone. So ten years later was The Late Shift, and I recognized at that moment that it was a big thing, and I approached it accordingly and used it to move ahead a little. I know that doesn't make me sound like much of an artist, but I've recognized since that time that it's all business, and certainly once you get a family and a mortgage and a lot of responsibility, you think about the business part of it. There are people who do well, and people who just do.
SV: You played Jay Leno in The Late Shift and Garry Marshall in the Mork and Mindy TV movie. It's one thing to play somebody who's dead, but is it intimidating to do somebody who's still alive and active in the entertainment industry?
DR: Absolutely, hands-down, yes. I don't know what I'm thinking to take these on, because you're such a target. When the Mork and Mindy thing came on, the press called it an over-the-top performance. I thought, "Well, how the hell do you do Garry Marshall?" I've been lucky enough to be in his presence, and my Garry Marshall is hopefully real because he talks in a certain way when he needs to, and when he doesn't, he's a regular guy. It is hard, it's a lot to take on, and you set yourself up as a target, but to me, playing Garry Marshall was my birthright. I fought very hard to convince them I was the right guy. Hollywood is weird in that they would hire me, and I would go to all the trouble to be Garry Marshall, or they would hire John Laroquette, and he wouldn't do anything except be John Laroquette. Luckily, calmer heads prevailed, and I got to play him. When I was a kid, I watched The Odd Couple, and I've stolen more from Jack Klugman, Tony Randall and Garry Marshall than a thousand other actors. To have that opportunity to play Garry and make him look like a real guy was very, very hard.
SV: Have you gotten any kind of feedback from Garry or Jay Leno on your performances?
DR: No, but that's not uncommon. Jay doesn't want to say he saw the show because he doesn't want to have to comment on record that he saw it. I think the same would be true for Garry Marshall. I will see Garry at some point, because I often go to the theater he owns, and I'll walk up to him and say, "I'm Dan Roebuck," and he'll either say, "You were great!" or he'll say, "You were an embarrassment to my entire family!" It's very strange, but this is the life I've chosen.
SV: I wanted to ask you about The Fugitive. How did you prepare to go for a role in a huge Hollywood blockbuster?
DR: It was an audition like any audition, and I remember it very well. I went to Warner Bros., and I was the next one to go in. The secretary knocked on the door and said, "Andy, Harrison is on line 1 for you." So (director) Andy Davis came out of the office where they were auditioning and went into another office to speak to Harrison Ford on the phone. And I waited, and waited, and waited. I had already waited awhile, and then it was like another 45 minutes while they talked on the phone. I came so close to getting up and leaving. I didn't want to sit there anymore. I was talking about leaving, and I remember the casting director saying, "He'll be done in a minute, just stay here." So I stayed, and when I went in, Andy Davis, who is about the nicest gentleman you could ever meet, said to me, "I'm so sorry that took so long." And I said, "To be honest with you, if Harrison Ford called me, I'd keep you waiting 45 minutes, too." And we hit it off.
SV: All of you guys seemed to have a really good rapport with each other. Was most of the banter scripted or did you improvise?
DR: Thanks to Tommy Lee (Jones), much of what the marshals say in our interaction was ad-libbed. Tommy Lee kind of spearheaded that, and Joe Pantoliano, Tom Wood and L. Scott Caldwell are all fabulous actors, and they all knew what direction they wanted to take their characters. Those roles were undefined on purpose because they were waiting for the final group of four people they could form into the marshals, whether they were black, white, male, female, whatever. When they told me that I was one of them, I don't think it even hit me right away. I went back to shoot a few more episodes of Matlock for the end of that season, and I remember Brynn Thayer saying, "Did I hear you're gonna be in a Harrison Ford movie?" I said, "Well, it's not a big part," and she's like, "Are you crazy?!"
SV: When the time came for U.S. Marshals, I assume you automatically had the role, right?
DR: Right, but here's a little insight into Hollywood, which is appalling, as always. U.S. Marshals finally came to be, and they did what they always do -- they called us and offered us all less money than we made on the first movie. I truly believe if Tommy Lee Jones hadn't said, "Get me the same guys," Warner Bros. would have put four different guys in there.
SV: You played another cop in Final Destination. What was it like working with Glen Morgan and James Wong?
DR: Those are two smart guys. Glen and James really know the genre. It was an easy movie to do because I knew their pedigree, and I just trusted them. Plus, I didn't have to do any of the horrific stuff like getting electrocuted and strangled in the bathtub, so it was fun to watch the whole movie unfold. As horror movies go, I think Final Destination is a nice, tight scary movie. Oddly, I just bumped into them recently. I was in a hotel, I came out of my room, and Art Schaeffer, the producer, was coming out of a room right across from mine. I'm like, "Dude, what are you doing here?" And he goes, "Ummm, we're making Final Destination 3." I go downstairs, and there in the lobby is James and Glen and a whole crew. I said, "How dare you make this movie without me!" It was a joke, but when they were making Final Destination 2, I thought that would be nice to do. I had The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals, and the two Cody Banks movies, and it's exciting to carry a character from film to film. If you want to know what kind of loser I am, watch Final Destination on DVD and listen to the audio track. It was pointed out to me that when I'm onscreen for the first time, Glen or James says something like, "Danny Roebuck is the only guy who came in to audition who knew the characters' names were from old horror films, so we had to cast him because of that."
SV: Another horror film on your resume is The Vampire Hunters Club.
DR: That was a short that Buddy Barnett and Kathe Barnett, who own Cinema Collectors, and Ed Plumb -- who's a collector I've known around town for years -- put together. I remember when they called, they asked if I could do this short, and I said, "Well, I'm kind of busy, but let's talk about it." I've known Buddy for years from going to his shop, but I was like, "I just don't know, I don't know if I have the time," and then someone said I'd be playing Count Dracula, and I said, "And when do we begin filming?" They made it on a really tight budget, and we had two different directors. Don Glut took over for the first guy who wasn't really open to collaboration on any level, so he was asked to step aside. It's a fun movie, and I'll tell you why it was fun for me -- it's Bob Burns, Forry Ackerman, John Agar, and Bill Smith. They also put in a great friend of mine, Dave Donham, who unfortunately passed away. I met Dave as an extra two weeks after I moved out here, and years later we ended up doing a play together called No Time for Sergeants. He became part of our family. He would have holidays with us, he would hang out with us, and I'd drive him around Hollywood. It was one of the last times we had to act together. Ultimately, if people see it, they'll either like it or they won't, but I really like the people who made it, and I enjoyed doing it.
SV: How did you become involved with Bubba Ho-tep?
DR: I've known (director) Don Coscarelli for years, and I also met Bob Ivy, who plays the mummy in Bubba Ho-tep, as an extra 21 years ago, and he and I have been friends for a long time. He was my stunt double for about ten years. I admired Don and what he's done, and when he asked me if I'd be in this, I didn't bat an eye, I was happy to go and do it. Another inside joke is that I was there with a guy named Dan Schweiger, whom I've known for many years. Dan helped Don with his music track, so Don was very kind and gave him a part. Dan's an interesting actor -- the Eddie Deezen of the next millenium! It turned out to be a very fun movie.
SV: When you're asked to do a project like Bubba Ho-tep where you're friends with everyone involved, does your salary ever become an issue?
DR: I just agree to work for the least amount of money they can possibly pay me. When Don Coscarelli called for that, and when Rob Zombie called for Devil's Rejects, the last thing I talked about was my salary. We're all friends, and I would hope that if I need Rob Zombie to do something for me, I could make a call and not have to talk to his agent. Everybody tries to help each other out, and I was just happy to be working with Don Coscarelli. The money was, honestly, the last thing that occurred to me.
SV: You had a pretty memorable role on Lost, one of the hottest TV shows of the year. How did that come about?
DR: Lost was a gift because I didn't have to go beg for it, and that makes it a lot easier for me to get my head around it. When they just call and say, "Would you do this?" I'm happy to do it. It's Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams. When they wrote the character, Carlton said the first guy he thought of was me. Carlton is a great, great writer. He did Nash Bridges, he did Martial Law...
SV: Brisco County, Jr....
DR: Oh, Brisco County, Jr., with Bruce (Campbell), that was great! So, yeah, I think Lost is a show that's going to be worth watching for a long time.
SV: What's it like for you to do a guest role on an established show like Lost? Is the regular cast pretty friendly or do they act like you're invading their turf?
DR: Well, it's just like life itself -- are people assholes or are they not? Lost was a very unique situation because when they've had guest stars, they would work within a character's flashback. It was rare for them because there I was on the island reading lines with them, and they could've been like, "Who the f--k's this guy? Who invited him here?" But luckily that was not the case, they were all very inviting. Many times, I'm afraid shows with younger casts don't understand the value of the guest stars and the value of having someone with a different kind of experience working with them. Let me tell you what my ritual and routine was when I was doing Matlock... When all of the guest stars came into town in North Carolina, I would get all of their names and call the hotel and greet them. I'd tell them where to go to eat, where not to go, give them my home phone number and welcome them to the show. I've bumped into some of them over the course of the last ten years, and they all said, "You know, no one ever did that before." I just think that's an obvious thing to do. I don't tell that story to be self-aggrandizing, I'm telling it to say that you can do the right thing if you have a chance. I once went to do 3rd Rock from the Sun, and they brought me in to be a recurring character. While we were rehearsing that week, they decided the character just wasn't working the way they wanted it to work, so they wrote the character out. They didn't recast, they just wrote the character out of the show completely. The day they told me about it, I got a call from John Lithgow. He apologized and said, "I want you to know that it was nothing against you, the writers just had a different idea." I hung up that phone thinking this is the classiest guy I've ever met. Since then, that's happened to people on a few shows that I was a regular on, and I always make that call.
SV: It seems like you've had a pretty balanced career so far between doing movies and television. Do you have a preference for either format?
DR: Not really. I've had the chance to play so many different characters, which is a blessing. It's also a curse when you're trying to convince someone you'd be perfect for something because they're like, "Well, no, I don't see him playing anything like that." Wherever the best part is, I'm happy to be there. I enjoy taking my friends or my family to the theater, and the kids getting to go to a movie and see their dad is kind of neat. But the thing is more people are going to see the last episode of Lost than will have seen The Fugitive. It's just a little crazy how TV can grant you such extreme exposure. The terrible thing is I've done a lot of independent movies that no one has seen yet, which were the best acting roles I've had. On an independent, they take a chance on someone like me, a character actor, and say, "Well, let's move him into a lead." I do them, I have a great time, but nobody sees them.
SV: Have you ever been starstruck by other actors?
DR: Absolutely. When I was a kid, I used to write and ask for autographs. Harrison Ford took my breath away. I remember one night in the Hilton Hotel, we were both sitting on a piece of camera equipment waiting for a set-up. I looked over at him, and I said, "Ummm, I don't know what to say to you." And he said, "I understand." He was a very cool guy. Of all the people I've met recently, Evangeline Lilly -- the star of Lost -- there's something about her that makes me think she is destined for great things. She's a good, normal person, beautiful from the inside out. It's been a long time since I've seen someone that simple and uncomplicated who's capable of such entertaining work. I guess that's the opposite of starstruck, but I was still impressed.
SV: With all of your years in the industry and all of the credits on your resume, is it still difficult to make a living as an actor?
DR: Yeah. There's still an unknown to it, Scott. There's a lack of control that's probably the hardest thing about it. I've been moving more and more in the last few years into writing and producing, and that's all about control. That's me being able to say, "I'm doing that for the next four or five months." I guess the answer is it's still hard, but I'm not as worried as I was, say, ten years ago. I've been doing this for so long, and people still call and ask for me, they're still interested. I trust that no time soon will I be at a Hollywood collectibles show charging some idiot like me twenty dollars for my autograph. I'm pretty confident we're gonna be okay for awhile. But who knows what's ahead? I could stumble into a movie next year that could define my career for the rest of my life, just out of dumb luck. What I always remember is that Boris Karloff was 43 when he filmed Frankenstein, and from that point on for the rest of his life, he had a job. Some people say, "What kind of job is that to play somebody creepy in the movies for the rest of your life?" Well, that sounds like a pretty good job to me! Of all my friends that I know and admire, Robert Englund is probably the one I'm most jealous of. He's going to be to our children -- and our children's children -- like Boris Karloff. He's a guy who got to be in a lot of other movies because he played a monster. Growing up reading Famous Monsters, that would be an ideal situation for me to be in. I wouldn't hate that at all!
Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer is considered by many to be one of the scariest, most disturbing horror films of the 20th century. It was the directorial debut of John McNaughton, who has since gone on to Hollywood's A-list directing Mad Dog and Glory (starring Robert De Niro and Bill Murray) and Wild Things, a lurid thriller with a devoted cult following. On the eve of Henry's 20th anniversary DVD release, Scott Voisin spoke with McNaughton about his filmmaking career.
Scott Voisin: How did you first get involved with Henry?
John McNaughton: I was working at a bar that belonged to my cousin in the south suburbs of Chicago. I had just come back to the Chicago area after a number of years of wandering America, and I was looking to become a filmmaker. I knew that's what I wanted to do, but I was kind of stuck and didn't quite see a clear path from that bar to becoming a director. Anyway, as chance would have it, one of the regulars walked in one day, and we were talking. It was known around there that my ambition was to become a filmmaker, and he mentioned that he was working for this company called Maljack, which was the fledgling company started by Waleed and Malik Ali. So I switched to working nights at the bar and started working during the day for the Ali brothers. This business was being run out of their parents' basement at the time, and over the course of the year that I worked for them, we got to be friends, especially with Waleed, who was a visionary. We said that someday we'd eventually make a movie together. When I left their employ, I was doing other things and eventually produced some documentaries on Chicago gangsters. I brought them to the Ali brothers, they agreed to distribute and we made a little money. We were going to continue down that path making a couple of documentaries about wrestling because I had found a cache of old wrestling footage from the '50s. I was in Waleed's office to get the final go-ahead, and he said to me, "John, we've talked to the people who own this footage. Originally they quoted us 'this' price, but when they found out we actually had some money, they raised their price." The Ali brothers were not to be dealt with in that manner, so as I sat there, Waleed was saying, "You know, I've decided I don't want to go through with this wrestling project because the guy selling the footage is a crook. What I'm really thinking is, remember a long time ago when we talked about making a movie? I would like for us to make a movie." It was early in the home video business, and they had gotten in at the beginning and made some money. So, Waleed offered me $100,000 to make a horror movie. In the early days of home video, low budget, B-grade horror films were renting quite briskly because they were a lot of fun and hadn't been seen before. A lot of them had never gotten much theatrical release and were just kind of kicking around in the back channels of the entertainment business. In the beginning, it was very cheap to buy the rights to these pictures, but as they became more popular, they were getting more expensive. Waleed's idea was if they gave me a hundred grand, he'd own all rights to the movie to perpetuity. That's how I was offered my first directing job.
SV: Did you have any ideas in mind at that point?
JM: Well, I was leaving Waleed's office after he had offered me my dream of making a horror movie, but I had no idea what the subject should be. On my way out of the building, I passed an office that belonged to a guy named Gus Kavooras, and he was an old friend of mine that I had grown up with. Gus is a guy that always had a love for the weird, the bizarre and the arcane. So I walked into Gus's office, still in shock, and I said, "Waleed just offered me a hundred grand to make a horror film, but I have no f--king ideas!" He said, "Let me show you something," and he reached over and picked up a cassette. He had piles of casettes of weird sh-t, he popped one into the machine, and it was a segment of the show 20/20. The segment was about Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Elwood Toole and their career in crime. I was a fan of true crime, and I was horrified by their activities, or purported activities. It was really the first time I heard the term "serial killer." The show went on to describe what a serial killer was and tell the story of these two characters, and I just sort of knew that was it... that was the subject.
SV: How did you assemble the cast?
JM: Steve Jones, who was the producer, was very well-connected in Chicago's production community. I needed a writer, so Steve referred me to Richard Fire, who came from the Organic Theater Company, which was Stuart Gordon's company. Steve also suggested Tom Towles for Henry because Tom was also a member of the Organic group, but I thought Tommy was more of an Otis, so that's who we cast him as. Richard Fire recommended Tracy (Arnold) because she was working in an Organic Theater production, and she came in and was great. We were looking for a Henry, and a couple of actors we liked came in, and they sort of turned their noses up because at that point, no one thought the movie was going to be anything but a Z-grade slasher picture. There was no high regard for the project around Chicago at that moment. We had found one actor we liked. He was older and not that sexy, but he was a good actor, so we were thinking pretty seriously of casting him when the make-up artist, Jeff Segal, said, "Are you open to seeing other actors?" We said, "Yeah, sure," and he goes, "Well, I know this actor I worked with in a play, and his name is Michael Rooker. I think he'd be really good for this." So, we were casting from Richard Fire's apartment, and we were waiting for Michael to show up. There was a knock at the door, and when I answered it, Michael was standing there basically in the same clothes that he would wear in the movie, his own personal clothes. I just looked him up and down and said to myself, "Oh, God, please let him be able to act, because he sure looks like the guy." He was able to act, he read for us, and we cast him lickety-split.
SV: The movie is so serious and so disturbing. What was the tone like on the set during filming?
JM: The tone was very interesting because the inmates were in charge of the asylum. The Ali brothers gave us money but had never read the script, so we were just turned loose to make our movie. Some of the people were experienced in various aspects of the movie business and some weren't, myself being foremost. It was the first time I was ever on a movie set, and I was the director. It was a lot of fun because we were really making it by the seat of our pants and winging it. We had nobody over our shoulders.
SV: I've read the Ali brothers were shocked when they eventually saw what they spent their money on.
JM: Yes, I would have to say that's true. I was aiming to make something different from the standard thing, which is to fulfill genre expectations and get your expected return on investment. I have to credit Richard Fire... My original idea was probably more along the lines of exploitation, and Richard being a man of the theater sort of steered it in a better, more sophisticated direction.
SV: The home invasion scene has become legendary for it's unflinching brutality. Did you know it would have that kind of effect when you shot it?
JM: The intent of the scene, from the time it was written, was to be really horrific. One of the thematic ideas the movie deals with is violence as entertainment. The period that we were working on the film was the period of Stallone and the Rambo pictures. Violence in a movie usually involves the good guy and the bad guy. The bad guy acts despicable enough to cause the audience to want to see him killed. You know, there's justification because he's got it coming to him. And then the hero dispatches the bad guy, or in the case of the Rambo films, there's a lot of bad guys, so he gets to kill them by the score. That's entertaining violence, because the audience can feel self-rightous and say, "Get 'em, they deserve it." In our movie, we were trying to kind of say, "Yeah, that's how they usually do it, but how entertaining is violence?" The home invasion scene is the key scene to make that point. It was intended to be shocking and awful, but it was also intended to sort of admit that, as filmmakers, this is what we do, we entertain with violence. In my original idea, we're sort of implicating ourselves, we're owning up, but the way it was shot, it also implicates those who are watching it. You're watching it sitting on the sofa next to Henry and Otis as it's played back, and now you are also watching this violence as entertainment, and it's not nearly so gratifying. It's actually rather horrid, and I think that was the key moment in the movie. We did two takes, and after the second take, I turned toward everyone in the room and said, "None of us are goin' to heaven after doing this."
SV: Henry debuted at the Chicago Film Festival in 1986 but didn't get a theatrical release until 1990. What happened to the film during that time?
JM: I don't think there was much enthusiasm for the picture, and it kind of got put on the shelf. But there were a couple of screenings, and a lot of cassettes went out to various people in the critical world and the movie business, as well as friends and neighbors and relatives. I was in New York visiting a friend of mine, Steve Hager, who was the editor of High Times magazine. He knew a lot of people in New York, and he knew one guy who was working for Vestron. Vestron was a very viable video label at the time. They were the number one video company, and they were starting theatrical distribution. So Steve had a little get-together at his apartment in Manhattan, and we screened the film for the New York cognoscenti. Vestron decided they wanted to acquire the film after seeing it. That was great, but there was a big mess with their legal department, and in the end, after about nine months, Vestron walked away. They claimed that they were worried about being sued because we had used the characters' real first names. My contention was, "Henry Lee Lucas is going to sue you for what? He's a convicted murderer on death row. What, did we damage him in some way?" After Vestron walked away from it, I was about to get involved with a company, Atlantic Releasing, to make another film, and they decided they were going to release Henry. They picked it up and submitted it to the MPAA, and the MPAA came back with an "X" and said, "There's literally nothing you can do to change that. There's no cuts you can make." They objected to the overall moral tone. I don't think anyone else has had that distinction. This was before "NC-17," and in fact, Henry is one of three pictures that were crucial in causing the "NC-17" to be created. So Atlantic Releasing walked away and the movie languished some more until it made a big splash at the Telluride festival and garnered a lot of notoriety.
SV: When you say notoriety, are you referring to when some of the Telluride audience walked out?
JM: I'll give you the true story of Telluride... Telluride brings in a guest director of the festival every year. That year, they had brought in Errol Morris, who had previously seen Henry, and the guest director gets to pick two films to show at the festival. Errol Morris picked some old Douglas Sirk picture and Henry. It was very interesting because Errol Morris is, you know, Errol Morris, and he's known in a different world than the horror genre, so I think people were expecting something entirely different. Errol was very gracious and very kind to pick the film, and very brave, as it turns out. He introduced the film, the lights went out, and the film came up. I was there with Steve Jones; Elena Maganini, the editor; Chuck Parello, the publicist who was largely responsible for getting it into these festivals and getting it written about; Michael Rooker and Richard Fire. We had quite a contingent at that first screening. Exactly at the home invasion scene, I would say that 20% of the audience left. But like I said, we wanted to make that scene bad, shocking and awful. How well we succeeded in doing that we didn't know until later.
SV: Your next film, The Borrower, was almost the polar opposite in tone from Henry. Did you intentionally set out to do something this different as your next project?
JM: When Henry was finished, I didn't have the momentum of that film to get me another job. I went eighteen months without any income whatsoever, so there were some tough times after Henry. The movie did finally get me an agent, and I was broke, flat-ass broke, and I needed to go to work. I was sitting in Chicago and the agency was sending me scripts, and mostly they were the exact opposite of what we tried to do in Henry. They were the obvious genre-repeater movies, the things you've already seen ten thousand times, really stock stuff. So I was reading script after script, and I couldn't do them, they had nothing to recommend them to me. Finally, The Borrower came along, and I loved the concept of this creature that rips the head off a human being and then takes the head and becomes that person, more or less. It was a metaphor for what an actor does, and it allowed you to traverse social classes. You could go into the lives of these characters at different levels of society, and that was a fun idea. Plus, I just love the idea of ripping somebody's head off their shoulders, putting it on your stump and then kind of growing into it, but not quite... It wasn't a serious thing like Henry, it was sci-fi fantasy, and stylistically, I was sort of inspired by pictures made in the '70s.
SV: How would you compare the making of the two films?
JM: We made Henry with a crew of three on most days. I'm not exaggerating... The production designer would come in and make sure the set was OK, but then he'd leave because he was also working in the theater. The costume designer was working on the same play with the production designer, so she'd have a rack of costumes on the set and have them all tagged for the actors. Nobody was on the set. Sometimes there was an assistant director, sometimes not. We had an assistant cameraman the first week, but the young man was trying to direct the picture and he wasn't loading the magazines. The cinematographer said, "Why don't we get rid of him and save $300 a week, and I'll load my own magazines?" So the cinematographer had no crew, it was just him. We had two all-purpose guys that weren't really experienced grips, but they could do what grips do and did a good job. And there was a sound guy. So the daily crew, without the actors, was between five and six. On The Borrower, even though it was only a $3 million picture, we had trailers and Teamsters and a full crew. For me it was like, "Why do we need all these people all the time? It's just slowing us down." Now I'm used to working with bigger crews and getting the most from them, but it was a tough transition to go from a crew of five or six to 70 or 80 people on any given day.
SV: Were you worried when those two films were released so close together that you might get stereotyped as a horror guy?
JM: I was just happy to have them released at all! I mean, to this day, if a movie gets released, it's a wonderful thing.
SV: Speaking of which, another film of yours that has gained quite a following over the years is Normal Life.
JM: That was a pretty good experience. It was a small budget, and we were scraping along, but I liked very much working with those actors (Luke Perry and Ashley Judd). It was shot by Jean de Segonzac, who I had known and had worked with on the TV series Homicide. I don't remember hearing too much from Fine Line, probably because they had written it off already, so we were pretty much left alone.
SV: Do you have any idea why the movie was shown on cable first before going to theaters?
JM: At first, Fine Line decided they weren't going to release it, but I don't remember ever getting a good reason why. I do remember going insane and being pretty ungracious with them. I also called my agent at the time and called him a name that's used on Deadwood a lot. If you've ever seen the poster or any of the artwork they produced, I sort of get the idea of what they thought it was going to be, which is this sort of blowzy, lurid B-level genre picture. They finally did release it, but to sort of third-tier American cities.
SV: Wild Things was a big, commercial film for you. Were you involved during the development process or were you just brought in to direct it?
JM: I was hired to direct, but I also caused it to be re-written many, many, many times by a novelist friend of mine named Kem Nunn. I don't mean to demean the original writer, Stephen Peters, because the original script was very well-plotted. I won't say anything more than that, because that's what was good about the script. After Kem was hired, we were sent to southern Florida for a week to do research. We hung out with gator wrestlers, very wealthy women with spoiled daughters, a sex crimes cop and teachers at fancy, private high schools. We got a real feel for all the different types of people that were characters in the piece, and I'm very pleased with the film. I just saw it recently at a festival in Germany where I was given a retrospective. The Borrower was probably my first attempt to make an entertainment-type movie, and Wild Things was probably the next. It was my take on a commercial picture.
SV: Do you enjoy doing plot-oriented projects such as Wild Things, or do you prefer more character-based pieces like Henry and Normal Life?
JM: I like to do different things. Wild Things was interesting because it was the first time I'd done anything that was really plot-driven. Everything else has been more character-driven. With a tight plot, sometimes you have to force the characters to do things that don't seem very believable because the plot demands it. I just saw Hustle & Flow, which is very much a character piece, and the plot was loose enough to give the characters room to move and really find themselves. That's what I really like to do most, but it was fun to take the challenge of a plot-driven piece like Wild Things, and in the end, it worked really well for a commercial movie.
SV: Henry and Wild Things both spawned sequels. Have you seen any of them?
JM: I've seen Henry 2, and there's much I like about it. It was made by Chuck Parello, who is a very good friend of mine, and I was glad to see him make a movie. I read his script, and whenever Chuck had any questions or needed any support, I was glad to give it.
SV: You've directed several episodes of TV over the years. What is that like compared to directing a film?
JM: On a movie set, the director is more or less king. Of course, you've got to listen to the people that are putting up the money and the executives, depending on who you're working with. On the other hand, there's televison... I remember a story about a Canadian director who had made a couple of pretty good independent pictures. In order to pay the bills, he came to do his first episode of television. It was a little rough for him at first, but once he got in the groove, he said, "Oh, I understand this. It's like I'm a guest in your house." That television show exists whether you live or die, and it makes little difference because they can get another director. Usually, the so-called "show runner" is the head writer, and it's his show, he's the king, and the director is a hired hand. And the schedule is such that you only have time to shoot and then move on, you don't really get to tweak things around while you're working. The show goes on Thursday night at 8 o'clock, period, end of story. There's no, "Oh, we went a week over."
SV: DVDs have allowed directors to alter their original films. When you were putting the Henry 20th anniversary DVD together, were you tempted to change it?
JM: Nope. There really wasn't much extra, it was a low-budget production, and what you saw was pretty much what we shot. On the DVD, there's a reel with a narration track by me of things that were cut from the movie, just various scenes. The reason for the narration track is because somewhere along the way, the original audio tracks went missing. But really, I have no desire to go toying with Henry.
SV: What is your opinion of directors who change their film for DVD?
JM: Well, when I think of Wild Things, there's one tiny little thing I would put back in that's about ten seconds or less. Sometimes with the pictures I've made, for some reason the studio didn't like them. So when it comes down between having your picture recut into some travesty which is the vision of those who think they know how to fix things, or having your picture not released or semi-released and remain intact, that's kind of a tough call. In a case where your film's been grossly altered, I would think it would be a very valid thing to do. For instance, Once Upon A Time in America... I don't know what the length of (Sergio) Leone's cut was, but it was non-linear and the studio then took it from him, cut it down by an hour and a half and completely reorganized the scene structure to make it a linear form of storytelling. It went out and tanked, and then Alan Ladd, Jr. said, "I was wrong," and they released something more akin to Leone's version. If the director was forced to change something or he always wished he would have left something in, then that's totally cool. That's one of the advantages of the digital medium.
SV: Just out of curiosity, what is the ten seconds in Wild Things you'd put back in?
JM: After the court case, Denise Richards and Robert Wagner and Theresa Russell are riding in the limousine. There's that little scene where Denise is just pouty and snotty, and Theresa says, "I want you to nail that shyster's balls to the wall." Wagner says, "There would have been a chance till princess not-so-bright here" did whatever she did. Denise turns around and goes, "F--k off," and what was cut was Theresa reaches out and just smacks her, and she goes, "You little slut!" When we did the previews, they ask questions like, "Who did you like? Who didn't you like?" Well, the younger audience, the 18-34 year olds, what's their worst nightmare? A horrific mom. Theresa just kind of scared them, and they had us cut her back a little bit in the extremes of her character, so to speak. She was just so great in that little snippet, but they insisted we remove it. That was about the only regret I have about Wild Things.
SV: Do you think test screenings are beneficial?
JM: There are benefits to be had from test screenings, but they can also engender fear in the executive cadre. On Mad Dog and Glory, the ending was always problematic with that piece. In the original ending, Bill Murray cleans Bob De Niro's clock and mops the street with him. The audience wanted to see De Niro kick Murray's ass, and if you were in the room with them, there was no mistaking that fact, the air was let out of them. So we went back and continued the fight and let Bob get some licks in. It needed to be done because we had to give the audience emotional gratification there. When you show a picture in a test screening, something like that is valid to me because the audience isn't getting it, or the audience wants more of something, and you can feel that. But if you're reacting to those questionnaires and just living in fear because somebody didn't like something, sometimes executives will just start panicking and ruin the picture. Fear-based cuts usually aren't helpful.
SV: Looking back on your experiences so far, what advice would you offer aspiring filmmakers?
JM: Well, the technical equipment is pretty readily available for almost anyone who's really interested in making a film. With digital video and computer-based cutting systems, you don't have to be rich. For young filmmakers, if you go to a decent film school, you'll have access to those tools. If you don't, you can still get access to those tools relatively cheaply. Just make films and show them to people. If you make a little film, if you've accomplished that, it's a wonderful thing. It doesn't have to be a feature film, it can be a five minute film or a ten minute film. There are outlets for short films. De Niro's festival, Tribeca, is doing a whole short film program, as are many festivals around the world. You'd be surprised, if you make a really good ten minute film, you could get a trip to Europe out of it. So make your film, make a film -- any film -- and learn from that and move on.