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Things have been so busy around here the past few months, I never got around to posting what should have been the final portion of my "Summer of Blood" coverage of the 50th anniversary of Blood Feast. I spoke to director/producer Herschell Gordon Lewis late last year to discuss the momentous occasion, and portions of that interview appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of VideoScope magazine. Below is a longer version of that interview.
How did you and Dave Friedman get involved with the other Box Office Spectaculars partners, Stan Kohlberg and Sid Reich?
A nasty turn of fortune. Stan Kohlberg owned a bunch of theaters in the Chicago area, some of which were hardtops and some of which were drive-ins. He became much interested in becoming a partner in a production company, because that would give him an opportunity, he felt, to exhibit motion pictures for which he wouldn't have to pay typical film rentals.
That was simply Kohlberg's manner. Sid Reich? I guess you'd call him an industrialist. He owned a company in Rochester, New York, called BernzOmatic that made blowtorches and tools, and he was Kohlberg's partner in the theater business. Sid was a very decent fellow, I felt, and ultimately when [Box Office Spectaculars] ran into a situation which I'll describe to you in a moment, the other three partners sued Stan Kohlberg, and that was the end of Box Office Spectaculars.
How was Blood Feast financed?
There was almost no financing necessary because Dave Friedman and myself simply put up some money from previous winnings. We'd had, for example, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, which was a big winner. So we weren't really concerned too much about going in another direction, other than—because it was totally experimental; nobody had ever made a movie of that type before—we wanted to hedge our bets as best we could in case the move was total flop. I will say, on Kohlberg's behalf, he was willing to take a chance, so he came into the deal based on equal partnership. I've got to hand it to everybody involved here, because as you can imagine, if you want to project yourself back in time to that year, the notion of making a movie with the kind of content Blood Feast had could have been suicidal. We could have sat there with that movie, never getting a single play date out of it, except we knew Kohlberg would play it in one of his theaters.
That also was somewhat experimental, because Kohlberg already had a reputation for making it very difficult for a film company to collect film rentals. That was worth the risk, we felt.
What was the appeal of shooting in Florida?
Weather was a major factor if you're from Chicago. Florida is also a right-to-work state. That may not mean much to the typical major film company, but to an independent that doesn't want the IA or Teamsters involved, it's a benefit. There are lots of out-of-work actors in Florida. People want to work here. I came to the conclusion long before I moved to Florida that this was a very good place to make movies.
What can you tell me about Alison Louise Downe, who is credited as the screenwriter on a number of your films, including Blood Feast?
She was part of our team. We just named her as the screenwriter. When someone asks, "Who wrote the script for Blood Feast?", my standard answer has been, "What script?" We literally made that up as we went along. Later on, she became very difficult to work with and we parted company, but she always claimed she wrote the script for that and for She Devils on Wheels. She was simply part of the group. We assigned credits, sometimes we made up names.
Beyond Kohlberg's theaters, what was the plan to get the film distributed?
One benefit we brought to this mix was we had already established a minor reputation of making movies that the theaters could make money on. That came from our lowered demand for film rentals from a play date.
Let me explain that. A major film company would come into a theater and say, "Here's our deal. We get 80 percent the first two weeks, 60 percent the next two weeks, and from then on it's 50/50." We'd come in with our piece of crap, and we'd say, "Guarantee us one week at 35 percent. If you want to hold it over a second week, same deal, 35 percent." A theater owner could say to himself, "I can play to a half-empty house and make more money," which is of course what the nature of the business is. It's the film business. It's not a fundraiser. They could make more money with us, and they would take a chance because we knew how to put a campaign together.
I've always felt, even up to today, the campaign is just as important as what's on the screen. We weren't too concerned since the investment was so minimal in Blood Feast. What could we lose? I grant you, when I was cutting that thing in my little cutting room in Chicago, people would see this beat-up work print with grease pencil marks all over it and ask me, "Is this a medical film?" So I did have second thoughts about it.
We opened that movie, as you know, in one of Kohlberg's theaters, the Bellevue Drive-In in Peoria, figuring if we died in Peoria, who would know or care?
I think that's true. I think Scum of the Earth was transitional picture. Scum of the Earth was the last black-and-white picture I ever made. I'll call it a transitional picture, because it wasn't in line with what we had been making. I didn't want to make any more of the pictures we'd been making. I felt that particular industry was going in a rather strange direction and I didn't want to be a part of it.
There was a lot of controversy around Blood Feast's release. Some newspapers refused to run the ads. How did you work around these issues while you were trying to market the film?
We reveled in it! As I remember, the Louisville Courier-Journal decided not to run any ads for a motion picture with the word "blood" in the title. There was a major company movie, I've forgotten the title, that was caught like a dolphin in a tuna net because the policy was aimed at us, but everybody else paid the penalty. It was truly beneficial, and the more attacks we had, the better off we were.
The movie was chopped to bits. We never knew what we were going to get back when a print came back to us, having shown at a place where the public outrage had led to somebody taking a scene out. It was inevitable, and we anticipated that. We knew that we were plowing new soil there.
There was an injunction taken out against the film in Sarasota, Fla.—by Dave Friedman himself, in an effort to drum up publicity.
Yes, that was Dave. There was only one of him. He was the ultimate showman. I recall, we were shooting somewhere in a very posh neighborhood in Miami, and they sent a policeman out, and Dave got the policeman to take a bit part in the movie. That little anecdote is true. We initiated much of the controversy surrounding the movie. What are you going to do with a movie that cost nothing to make, had a cast of nobodies, and primitive effects? You go for showmanship. That's what we did. History has justified it, I think. That may be too liberal a verb. We literally initiated a new genre of motion pictures. That's not easy to do when you have no budget.