Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Don't Feel So Terrible About What I've Done: An Interview With Herschell Gordon Lewis

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 found an article that indicated Scum of the Earth played at that theater as well.

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.

Were you required to submit the films for review to those censor boards?

We had individual censor boards in a great number of situations. Some were friendly, some were unfriendly. Some didn't care at all. Some said, "Don't bother sending the thing, because we're going to turn it down." Some said, "Don't bother, we're going to say okay." In some situations, like in the metropolitan Los Angeles area or within some of the county areas, they cut the movie or wouldn't show it. In some of the inside areas, they showed it uncut. 

When did you start production on Two Thousand Maniacs?

Once we saw the business that Blood Feast was doing, I said to them, "What if we made a decent one?" The whole idea with Blood Feast was to test the water. Can we swim here? Here is this nothing picture with a cast of nobodies and really embarrassing effects. What if we made a decent one? That's how Two Thousand Maniacs came to be. I wrote that script in a matter of days; let's say hours. We went down to St. Cloud, Florida, and they thought we were shooting orange juice commercials until we opened up and let them see what we were doing. By that time they were caught up with the camera and the equipment. It looked more professional than it really was. We were now in a different league.

To this day that is my favorite of all the movies I've made. Last week I was invited to a thing in Calgary, Alberta, called the Calgary Horror Con. What did they screen? Two Thousand Maniacs.

So by the following summer, you had a double feature to distribute.

We could often pair those pictures up, or use them as first feature and buy a second feature somewhere. Typically in the drive-ins, which would show two movies in a night, the top feature got a percentage, the second feature would get maybe $25 flat, so if we controlled both sides of it we knew we'd get the percentage. Some theater owners would tell us our picture was the second feature, and we couldn't really penetrate that. But if we owned both sides of it, they couldn’t pull that trick. 

Was it challenging to collect your fees from the sub-distributors and exhibitors, and get an honest accounting of the box office?

The sub-distributors were not a problem, because they wanted to maintain a relationship. The problem we wound up having was with Kohlberg. He came to the two of us, Dave and me, and Sid Reich was going to go along with Kohlberg because he had been Kohlberg's partner up to that point. He said, "The Exchange Bank is interested in funding a permanent production company. But we have to show a bank balance to these bankers."

The argument made total sense. But what it meant was that the film rentals, which Kohlberg was in charge of collecting, would have to sit in the bank until we showed a very nice balance. So a month went by. Two months went by. Four months went by. Finally, I got a call from Sid Reich asking, "What's going on there?"

I went to the Exchange Bank, where I knew somebody. I asked him about the deal. He told me Kohlberg had axed it months ago. That is what generated a lawsuit by the three of us against Kohlberg, to force distribution of funds. But what happened then was, knowing the Chicago court system, I told Dave that we better get something going here or we're going to run out of money altogether. That was the genesis of Moonshine Mountain, because we had a distributor in Charlotte, N.C., who was one of our major outlets. For our pictures, three exchange areas—Charlotte, Atlanta, and Jacksonville—represented a huge percentage of the totality of dollars coming in. The fellow who ran Dominant Pictures of the Carolinas, he controlled those three exchange areas, and he told us if we made a picture something like Thunder Road, he could get that distributed all over the place. 

I shot Moonshine Mountain in a little town called Bullock Creek, S.C., right across the border from North Carolina where he was located. We started planning Moonshine Mountain, and suddenly Dave Friedman disappeared. His phone was disconnected. It turned out that he settled with Kohlberg unilaterally and moved to California. 

Sid Reich later had a part in one of my movies. A decent fellow, but he died. His kids wanted no part of any of this. They just withdrew. That left me as the sole plaintiff in this lawsuit against Kohlberg. I was glad I had Moonshine Mountain. That supported me for two years. Finally I had a meeting with Kohlberg in this judge's office. The judge was named Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. He took his first two names very seriously. His chambers were loaded with Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. The conversation in that thing started this way. He turned to Kohlberg, and said, "I can't believe a classy guy like you would do anything like this."

Based on that conversation, and my own desire not to spend every dime I had in legal fees, I settled that thing—not for pennies on the dollar, but mills on the dollar—and got out. At least I escaped with my skin intact. But I just made more of these things as time went on.

So who wound up with ownership of the Blood Trilogy after that?

It was murky. Nobody had total control of it all. One day I got a call from Jimmy Maslin, who was then very young, who said he had bought the negatives of all these pictures and wanted information from me about the campaigns. I had never heard of him at that time; of course now we've become very friendly and established a business relationship of our own. At that point, to settle the thing out, everybody had to get out. That is, give up whatever subsequent rights there were. We felt that the pictures had played out, which shows how murky the crystal ball can be. Jimmy has built a very good business out of all this. 

Here we are celebrating the golden anniversary of Blood Feast, which is still showing, and I think that's funny. And here's Disney with The Lone Ranger, and a $200 million write down. I guess I don't feel so terrible about what I've done.

After you left the film industry, but before you started getting a lot of press in FANGORIA and other magazines, were you aware of the reputation that had built up around these films?

I guess vaguely so. During that period, I was (and still am) very much involved in my other career, so I wasn't bothered by it. I had a good run and had a good time. Throughout that period, I think again Jimmy Maslin was responsible for much of it, because he really orchestrated that renaissance; he and a fellow named Mike Vraney, who runs Something Weird Video in Seattle. Every now and then I would get a phone call or a letter from someone saying they wanted to make Blood Feast 2. It happened so often that I developed a defense mechanism. I told them, "Put your deal together and call me."

That's how Blood Feast 2 came to be. A fellow named Jacky Morgan was in Ft. Lauderdale, and he told me he was line producing a movie called Bully (2001), and he was interested in making Blood Feast 2. He wanted to meet for dinner. So I met him, and he seemed to be a reasonable type of person, although I didn't sense "movie executive" in him. Sure enough, he put a deal together and we made Blood Feast 2

On that film I was simply a hired hand. They wanted to use my name, and I found that very flattering. I had a wonderful time. I didn't have to load the camera! I felt that Blood Feast 2 was not my movie, even though it has my name on there as director. So I put together a script, which I called Grim Fairy Tales, and put a deal together to make that movie. I changed the title to The Uh-Oh Show (2009).

Now I have a movie called Mr. Bruce and the Gore Machine, and we're talking to people. One of the reasons I went up to Canada was because these folks are interested in producing that movie. If anybody is interested in producing a movie, all they have to do is whistle. 

No comments:

Post a Comment