Upon hearing of Matt’s email exchange with Brian Yuzna, I got very excited. I’m a big fan, and, strangely enough, at that exact time, I was going on something of a Yuzna bender, re-watching my DVDs of his work and reliving the gory, surreal delights every Yuzna film offers. Brian Yuzna is undeniably genre royalty, and his work from the 80s and 90s has aged beautifully. I immediately begged Matt to pester Brian for an interview. Brian was kind enough not only to chat with me over Skype but far exceed the time limit originally set.
Brian Yuzna is a name that I’m sure anybody reading Mondo Exploito will be familiar with. Brian has had a long and consistent career making his mark not only as a producer but a director and writer. I grew up watching his films. Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and Bride of Re-Animator (1990) were favourites of mine — I hired them out countless times — and Society (1989) left me utterly gobsmacked. Best of all is The Dentist and its sequel, which are absolute must-sees for any horror fan. Even in this day of cheap, empty horror, Brian’s post-2000 career has been incredibly entertaining with movies like Beneath Still Waters (2005) and Amphibious (2010) delivering fun times.
It was very daunting to speak to someone of such overwhelming achievements. I found myself very nervous, but Brian is an excellent speaker with countless stories and a great, progressive outlook on filmmaking. I could have easily spoken to him for a couple more hours. I hope you enjoy it.
It was the first professional film I was involved with.
And before this, non-professionally?
I didn’t go to film school or anything, but I did end up making I what you’d call an amateur movie — a short film that I then made into a long film. It was called Self Portrait in Brains, and it’s about an artist who blows his brains out against a canvas for art and becomes a protagonist as a hologram. It was not very good. I shot it on 16 with a Bolex camera that I’d come into possession of. It was the movie that got me into movies.
Wow. Will we ever be able to see that film? Do you think it will ever be an extra on a blu-ray or DVD?
I hope not!
[laughs] So how did Re-Animator come about? Was this your project? Did you bring it to Stuart Gordon, or did you come on board a bit later in the production?
After I made the amateur movie, I decided that I wanted to make a real movie. I started going to Los Angeles and tried to get into the movie business. I met a guy named Bob Greenberg. [He] told me I should meet Stuart Gordon, who was also from Chicago as he was. Stuart was a theatre director for ten years at that point. He was the creative director of the Organic Theater Company. Bob said Stuart was a big horror fan, and I was trying to make a horror movie. So I went to Chicago to meet him and when I met him we really hit it off. He had a project, which was a TV series based on Herbert West–Reanimator and he had the pilot already scripted. I told him if we could develop it into a feature film then I’d be on board. A year later we started shooting.
Are you a hands-on kind of producer? When you produced Re-Animator, were you there on the set?
I was very much involved with the movie from development, through the shooting, through the post. So yeah, I was very hands-on, especially on Re-Animator because that was the only movie that I had the final say on because I was the guy that paid for it. Ever since then I’ve always had a company pay for the movie, usually a company, and they all become much more politicised.
After producing a few more of Stuart Gordon’s films, you started to direct as well. Without trying to sound too much like a raving fan, you’re one of my favourite genre directors, and your directorial debut Society (1989) is a masterpiece. I first saw it as a teenager and it completely blew my mind. What prompted the transition from producer to director? I’d imagine directing Society would have been a big learning curve…
I think it’s pretty natural that almost anybody that starts working in the movies at one time thinks, ‘Gee, I could direct.’ In fact, with a good crew, anybody can direct. I’m not saying they’re going to be brilliant, but you can learn how to do it. With Re-Animator, I really felt that was my movie and I got to be the ultimate authority — the buck-stops-here guy — [but] then I realised, going through that process, that the director got to do a lot of things that I’d like to do.
I did three movies with Stuart — we did Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dolls — and then I quit working with Charlie Band and Empire because somehow the money from Re-Animator, which was a big success, never came to me. It was one of those typical Hollywood stories where all the sudden, somehow all these rules mean that you don’t get the money. In this case, it was just because they attributed lots of sales to other movies. So then I had to sue Charlie Band. I had to sue Empire.
When I did that, I was working on a movie with Stuart over there. I had given Re-Animator to Empire to do the sales, so even though they had no equity in the movie, you have to have a sales agent and they were the sales agent and the US distributor. All the sudden, they didn’t pay any of the money. All the people I had borrowed money from… everybody thought the movie was a huge success and thought they were going to get rich, and I still couldn’t even get the money back that it cost. It was a real frustrating situation. I eventually took legal action and Stuart chose to keep working with Empire, and of course I couldn’t work with them because I was suing them.So then I tried to do a few other things with Stuart. We had an idea for a kids’ movie. That was Honey I Shrunk the Kids. And we developed other stuff. I spent about a year working with Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien and directed Return of the Living Dead, on a movie idea of his called The Men. Then, about the same time, Honey I Shrunk the Kids became a project in the past for me. Stuart was supposed to direct it. I was producing, we built all the sets in Mexico, I moved my family down, and then Stuart was unable to continue for health reasons. The new director came in and I was delegated to an honorary kind of role. Then on The Men, I had developed a whole story with Dan O’Bannon, I got the financing, and then Dan pulled out as the director. Again, I lost my grip on a project.
At that point, I thought, ‘I want to be the guy.’ The movie gets made because I’m on it. I didn’t want it to be cancelled because of somebody else quitting. Mixed with the fact that, like I said before, anybody that works on a movie, at one time or another, wants to direct, I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to direct then.’
I had a friend who had started up a company called Wild Street Pictures and they were making these little, low-budget movies. I’ve always been attracted to little, independent companies like them, and I said, ‘Hey, let me do one!’ I had an ace in the hole, which was that I owned the rights to the sequel to Re-Animator. So I said, ‘Let’s make Bride of Re-Animator with your company.’ They said, ‘Of course, great.’ And I said, ‘But I want it to be a two picture deal for me to direct and the Re-Animator one will be the second one.’ The logic there for me was if I wasn’t any good, if the first time I tried directing it was a bust, at least I’d get another chance because there’s no way they’re going to give up the Re-Animator sequel.At that point, with Wild Street, somebody gave me a script one day. It was Rick Fry, one of the writers of Society. He got a meeting with me and he gave me the script. When I read it, I found that it had this paranoia tone that The Men had. Dan [O’Bannon]’s project, The Men, was about this woman who came to realise that all men are aliens. I had been immersed in this world of paranoia, of this societal secret, for months, almost a year, and Society gave me a way to go back there and actually make a movie based on this sort of feeling.
The only thing that Society didn’t have for me was in the original script the pay off was that the parents used the kids as a blood sacrifice, kind of a Santería type thing. That just didn’t seem interesting enough for me, so I tried to think of something else that would be more satisfying. I love effects and I thought what would I like to see in a movie effects wise that I haven’t and I imagined these peoples’ flesh melding into one another, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to see that.’ From that idea, I worked with the writers Woody Keith and Rick Fry and we developed this idea of ‘the shunting’ and went in that direction with the script.
Wild Street were financed by Japanese [investors] and they asked if I could meet this Japanese effects guy called Screaming Mad George and maybe he could work on the movie. I met George and we hit it off immediately. George was a real surrealist then, and I am too. I always loved expressionism and surrealism. We immediately started looking at Dali paintings and the like, and started designing what the shunting would look like. So that’s kind of the way it all evolved.
Did I learn from it? Of course. I think I learnt how to direct pretty much by watching other people. Like I said, I’ve never gone to film school. I did read books about how to make movies, how to write movie contracts, how the crew work, all of that stuff, but I only learned by doing. And at that time there were no DVDs with extras, commentaries, and behind the scenes that show how a movie is made. I think today everybody knows how you make a movie. Back then it was pretty mysterious. To make a movie was a big deal and you really had to include tons of professionals. You needed a laboratory, you needed professionals who could mix sound, the equipment was not something that you could access yourself. Editing equipment — yeah, you could get a Moviola or something but you needed someone who knew how to use it. Cameras — you needed a D.P. who could read a light meter. There was no video assist. You would just look through the lens on one of the practices and then the D.P. would tell you if the framing was okay. You didn’t know what it would look like until you had dailies. It was a whole different time of making movies.
A lot of my approach to directing, I learnt from watching Stuart direct. And I learnt how to produce just by producing. I never watched anybody. Maybe that was a mistake. I’m sort of the school of hard knocks when it comes to moviemaking. Shooting for the first time and being the director, it was a learning experience, but I had already spent a few years making movies and I spent a lot of time in the editing room. I think I learnt a lot from editors. I learnt a lot about how you cover a scene and what works and what doesn’t by just sitting behind an editor and watching and discussing with him how scenes are cut.
Just to return to Screaming Mad George for a moment, you’ve worked with him on a lot of films and I really love his work. It’s instantly recognisable. I think you also produced his directorial debut as well, The Guyver. Are you still in contact with him?
He went back to Japan.
So he’s not really doing effects anymore?
He is for music videos in Japan.
Ah! I was wondering what happened to him. Your second film as a director was Bride of Re-Animator (1989). You mentioned that you had the deal with Wild Street… did you find that there was a lot of pressure on you making that sequel? I mean, it was a sequel to such a huge hit…
It was very daunting because it was trying to live up to one of the great horror classics of all time. I didn’t know if I could do it, but at that time in my life I would take anything on. With Re-Animator, I borrowed money personally with a guarantee of a return to make that movie. If I hadn’t been able to recoup, I would have had to pay it out of my own pocket, somehow, over the years. So that’s a huge risk. On Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the shark tank that is the studios was so intense, you could just collapse. The pressure is so heavy at that level. And I don’t think the pressure was any heavier for Bride of Re-Animator.
At least with Bride of Re-Animator, I was the producer, director, and writer. I signed the checks and I was directing, so I really had control of that movie. That takes away all the political problems involved. I mean of course there’s always negotiations with heads of departments and talent and all that, but the pressure of Bride of Re-Animator, as you mentioned, is that you don’t want to come up short in the eyes of the fans. How do you live up to it? That was really tough. And it was really tough because we had the financing set for the movie… I think it was shot in 1988 if I’m not mistaken… maybe ’89… is it ’89 or ’90?It came out in 1990, I think, so I’m guessing it was shot in ’89?
Yeah, of course. In January, the Japanese had agreed to finance it. I worked with Dennis Paoli and Stuart to come up with a sequel story. As we were developing it, we got to March of that year, and we kind of had a treatment. At that time, the Japanese gave us a date when we had to start. We had to begin shooting the first week of June. I don’t know if it has to do with their corporate reporting or… you don’t know why, right? But they said, we will finance the movie, but you have to start on this date. So then I went to the writers, Stuart and Dennis, and said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to have the script ready in time to shoot in June.’ And they said, ‘No, this can’t be done. We need six months.’ I said, ‘If we do six months, then the money’s gone.’ They didn’t budge, so I paid them and said thanks.
Then I called up the writers of Society and said, ‘Let’s do a script real quick.’ We started writing the script, ridiculously enough, in the beginning of March of that year. It was really a stupid thing to do, but we just started brainstorming and writing and writing and writing. There were things I was fairly certain about. One was that it would be called Bride of Re-Animator, because on Re-Animator, we always said the sequel should be that. Two was for me I always imagined this finger eye creature. Everything else about the sequel, we invented starting in March.
It was really tough because it had to have enough the same to be a sequel but it had to be different too. It had to take things further. I went back to the original stories and tried to pull out everything we hadn’t used in the first one. We were also trying to come up with stuff that would match the head-giving-head scene in Re-Animator. How do you do that? How can you match that kind of transgressive delirium? So yeah, it was very, very tough. And I know that specifically I was really worried about about putting bat wings on Hill’s head. [laughs]I mean, yeah, it was really, really frightening. We got the script and it was really a first draft by the end of April and then, on May 1st, we were starting pre-production. We had to rush the script to the office on the first day of pre-production, hot of the press, and start going. Then at that time, Barbara Crampton said she wouldn’t take the part. We wanted to put her in the prologue as Meg to pick up the movie right where the last one ended. She said the part wasn’t big enough and she didn’t want to work on it. And then Jeffrey Combs said he wasn’t going to play West. So then, I had to start casting for West! All of that was very, very frightening. The stress was really crazy.
It’s amazing that you could make it at all under that degree of stress.
It’s certainly impossible to live up to the original. As a sequel, it has its very rough spots — with acting, with directing, with the coverage even though we tried to shoot as much as we could, and I don’t think the ending is emotionally satisfying. There are a lot of things about it that I certainly cringe at. It’s just not told as well as I would have liked it to be. I certainly didn’t have then and don’t now have the ability that Stuart has to direct actors and his storytelling abilities. I think mostly what comes through for me that works is that it is like Re-Animator, it does have a new story, it kind of creates another world, and there’s certain parts of it I really like. Especially the ending — I like the delirium of the ending. There’s sort of an operatic feel to it. I like all that. It did go over pretty well. I think Fangoria magazine… which was like the Bible back then… the Fangoria readers voted it the best horror movie of the year. So that really made me feel good. I wish it was better than it is, but hey, it is what it is.I think it’s well-liked by fans even to this day. Right after you made Bride of Re-Animator, you made another sequel, Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 (1990), a completely insane and very underrated film. It’s a really bizarre movie and completely ignores the Santa killer aspect of the previous films. Was Initiation always intended to be a sequel to Silent Night, Deadly Night or did that begin its life as a different film?
I’m kind of embarrassed to say. The guy that bought Re-Animator was Richard Gladstein from Live Entertainment, and he had gotten this idea to do these video sequels. I mean, it was so cheap… it really was a cheap movie. He had bought Bride and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to do one of these Silent Night sequels?’ He said I could do whatever I want. The one before that, I think it had the Santa killer guy with his brain showing through a glass skullcap or something. The script that he had was written by someone in the company, and it was sort of this feminist cult movie. I wasn’t going to do it, but then I thought, I just want to make another movie. I don’t care what the budget is or what it’s about or anything.
I would do it differently now. I didn’t embrace what the original was… the Santa Claus killer thing. I consciously worked against the Santa Claus killer thing by making the main character Jewish. But I did get into the feminist part of it, and I ended up doing a lot of research into the myth of Lilith. I made it the story of Lilith in a modern way.
I used Screaming Mad George, Woody Keith, and Rick Fry. I had been working with Screaming Mad George ever since Society. We were both trying to find a way to put what we called ‘simulacra’ in movies. That’s kind of like an optical illusion when you see an image and if you look at it in a slightly different way it’s another image. It’s like seeing an elephant in the clouds. Or it’s the famous painting of the woman at her vanity mirror, but if you look at it a certain way, it’s actually a skull. Or it’s faces in rocks. All these things I became obsessed with, and we were trying to do it in Society, but just never had the time to set it up. So when we got to this one we thought, ‘Let’s do that!’
And we tried to. You can see [it in] some of the stains on the walls. You can see faces. The idea with simulacra was if you’re going crazy, you’ll start seeing things. You’ll see the same world, but you’ll see it in a different way. This was sort of the madness of me and Screaming Mad George and Woody Keith and Rick Fry. We were just a bunch of crazy witches, throwing every kind of toad, worm and beetle into our cauldron, and ignoring a lot of the requirements of cinema. I don’t think it’s a successful movie… it’s not a good movie… but I think it’s got more ideas in it than any other movie I made. [laughs]
It’s just so full of layers of ideas that fail, that don’t come through, that work to a certain degree. It’s certainly not a movie I want to show people, but boy, the ambition on that movie was incredible. And if you know anything about the myth of Lilith… everything’s about this kind of radical feminist, at least from a chauvinistic male’s point of view. [laughs] I sure wish it had worked out a lot better, but like I said, boy, were we out of our minds with ideas on that one! [laughs]It’s got some really great moments in it, and it’s completely mad in the best possible way! I wanted to talk a bit about Necronomicon: Book of Dead (1993). This was an anthology you co-directed and produced. All the stories in the anthology are based on works by H.P. Lovecraft. He’s obviously been a really important figure in your career. When did you discover Lovecraft? And what made you think you could adapt his work? I mean, his stories can be so short, and you’ve turned tiny stories into big feature films. And somehow, it worked. What made you realise that Lovecraft could translate to the screen so well?
I wasn’t a big fan of Lovecraft, until I made Re-Animator. I was always a fan of horror. I read a lot of horror stories and ghost stories. I tried reading Frankenstein when I was a teenager, and wow, it didn’t work at all for me. It was so archaically written, and all the good stuff was never described. And then I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I really liked that, especially the first part of it — Jonathon Harker’s journal — that read like a really scary story to me. Poe, of course… you have to read Poe in school… so you’re always really familiar with Poe. And that worked pretty well, especially stuff like The Cask of Amontillado.
I tried Lovecraft along with all these others. I read some Lovecraft stories and they were just such a difficult read. So unmodern. And then it would turn out that the hero would faint at the end when it was finally time to see the monster and you’d never get to see it. So I just didn’t pay much attention to Lovecraft. When Stuart mentioned Re-Animator, I’d never heard of that. And I read the stories when [we] started to develop the TV script into a feature. And wow, it was more of a regular horror story. Like the Monkey’s Paw or something like that. A grisly horror story.
After we were shooting Re-Animator, in post, we talked about what we would do next, and Stuart said we ought to do The Shadow over Innsmouth. So I read The Shadow over Innsmouth, and it was great. And I started imagining it as a movie, so I hired Dennis Paoli to write a script based on it, which I had him call Dagon instead of The Shadow over Innsmouth, because by that time I was just reading every Lovecraft story I could find and I thought Dagon was a better title.
Then I got a deal with Empire that they would finance three movies. They wanted to do it with me and Stuart, and they wanted to do another Lovecraft. I tried to find Lovecraft stories that would be good, and I picked Dreams in the Witchhouse and From Beyond. We did From Beyond because it was decided that having the machine is a very easy sell in a genre movie.
I read every book by Lovecraft. I became steeped in Lovecraft, because my big success in the movies was Lovecraft. And quite frankly, Re-Animator — even though it’s not a typical Lovecraft story… it’s super atypical — became part of my stock and trade, so I followed that. I started always imagining how to do different Lovecraft stories. I started reading Lovecraft not to just enjoy it by any means. I was reading it and imagining how [to make] it into a movie.
But like you said, with something like From Beyond, we used up the story before the credits start in the movie, so then you have to develop a story. I was one of the collaborators on the story of From Beyond from the beginning, but I would say that it was Stuart and Dennis Paoli that knew how to adapt things because they’d been doing it in theatre before Stuart even made Re-Animator. Stuart and Dennis were professionals. I was good at coming up with ideas and working on it, but I think they felt the freedom to take it where it seemed to go. To find a movie in it. And I think I learned from that. By the time we got to something like Necronomicon, I think that I gave each director the freedom to adapt the story however they wanted.
You moved away from Lovecraft when you made The Dentist films. The first Dentist (1996) is my favourite of your films. I love how it’s this unhinged drama of a man’s world falling apart rather than a straightforward slasher film. Am I right in thinking you didn’t write or produce The Dentist films? Can you talk a bit about how you came to direct them?
I didn’t produce them. Pierre David produced the movies. As far as the script went, I made a deal with Mark Amin of Trimark. I had produced Return of the Living Dead III for them, and it turned out real well. On Return of the Living Dead III, they had the right to do the sequel and I just interviewed writers. So I had ten or fifteen writers come and pitch their idea for it, and I had my own idea of what I wanted to do, which was that I wanted the main character to be a living dead. One of the writers had this idea of this Romeo and Juliet story — John Penney — so that was the one we chose, and I developed it with him. So [with] The Dentist that was the same idea.I was already on board as the producer and director to develop it from a title. It was a title called ‘The Dentist‘, and the requirements were: it couldn’t be science fiction — like zombies or aliens or anything like that — it had to take place in a dental office. The best idea came from Stuart [Gordon] and Dennis [Paoli]. They wrote a treatment that everybody loved, and then they wrote the first draft. It was [then] thought that it needed to be developed in a different direction, and so they were going to get another writer. At that time, I was going to Canada to produce Crying Freeman, and so I left the project and when I came back from Crying Freeman, they were getting ready to make it with Pierre David producing now instead of me. They were going to do it in Montreal. Mark Amin said, ‘Listen, if you want to direct it, come on board. We’re starting pre-production on Monday.’ This was on Friday.
They had gotten another writer, Charles Finch, to do a pass on it, so that was the script I was given. It was kind of an amalgam of the original and some new elements, and it didn’t have an ending really. So during the pre-production, I was working on the ending with an intern that they had at Trimark. So I didn’t write or produce them, but I certainly had a tremendous amount to do with them, especially the second one. Actually that one, we didn’t have any time to work on the script, and every evening for the first week or two of production, we would shoot all day and then Corbin Bernsen and myself and Jillian McWhirter would have sushi and then work on the scenes for the next day. [laughs]
It was also one of those super low-budget [films], especially the second one. That was super, super low-budget, and we didn’t really have any time to work it out. On the first one, it was low-budget, but I had pretty much complete freedom to design the movie, and I designed it really rigorously, I think more than any other movie I’ve made. I had a very clear idea of shots, the ending and beginning of scenes, and things like that. But I certainly was not in any way completely confident that the movie was going to work. I had never done a movie that had a ‘body count’ before really, where that was sort of the point of it. I didn’t know if I could do it. And the ending, the last scene… we were location scouting when the D.P. showed me this theatre and said, ‘Oh, this would be a great place to shoot.’ I made up the last scene to take place in there. So you can see it was on the run.[laughs]
Much more so than even Bride of Re-Animator, because with Bride of Re-Animator, we had a lot more resources. With The Dentist, the money was so tight. We did the entire score in one weekend on a synth. I took music from different sources and brought it in to the composer, who was also the guy that was doing the foley and the sound mixing. I mean that was a cheap movie. But as it turns out, the combination of the sort of rigorously design and Corbin’s great performance… Corbin really was a real collaborator on it. Whenever I would get stumped by something, he would always have an idea. And believe it or not, I just came back, before this interview, from a meeting with Corbin, because we’re working on The Plastic Surgeon now!
Oh wow! The Plastic Surgeon? That sounds like fun! You mentioned that The Dentist movies had really low budgets. With movies today, it seems that you either get an enormous budget, with something like The Avengers, or you’ve got films with practically no budget whatsoever. Do you think films are going to continue down this path of one extreme or another? Do you think this is a good thing? Or might this spell the end of good movies?
I don’t think it matters honestly. I think that movies are just an evolving audio-visual method of storytelling. I guess it started with shadow puppets. In every culture, it seems that they’ve told stories using silhouettes or magic lantern type stuff. Movies… cinema… it’s only been around for 120 years or something. I don’t know that it matters whether it evolves, or doesn’t evolve, or what happens to it. I just think things come and go.The budget I’m talking about with The Dentist 2, for example, even The Dentist, is very cheap. I mean they were down there with Initiation. But you’ve got to remember, that budget today would buy you much more. Not necessarily because of the devaluation of the money, inflation, but mainly because today, there’s a lot less cost in production and post-production. When you’re shooting on digital, you don’t need a lab. All the cost of the lab, the cost of the film, it’s all gone. Cameras are so cheap. You can literally shoot on an iPhone. The sensitivity of the digital is so great, you almost don’t need to light. Today you can shoot with anything, and what you see is what you get. You don’t need anybody with a light meter telling you what to do. And the editing, you can do on your computer. What hasn’t changed is that you’ve got to have actual storytelling, and you’ve got to have a point of view, you know? If you’re trying to tell a story that has a style to it, the techniques for that are the same as they’ve always been.
There’s a proliferation of indie, low-budget horror movies and most of them are some kind of riff on The Blair Witch Project. There’s so many of them out there, and they look like movies, they just don’t satisfy. It’s a new world in movies, and it’s all caused by digital technology, not just in the means of production by in the delivery systems. What [has] killed the independents is that you can’t recoup. People are used to getting everything for nothing on their computer. Nobody’s buying a DVD anymore. So what people are paying for is the huge event films. The independent stuff has gone to series, cable. How do you compete with horror cable series? Who can make a zombie film that makes you want to run and see it when you can watch The Walking Dead every day?
Everybody’s a filmmaker now, but everybody has to be the writer-director. They’ve got to be the big artist, the author of the movie. So all of this together, we have a huge proliferation, nobody wants to pay for it, there’s no way to recoup, and there’s the big, big, huge get rich movies, and then there’s all this lower stuff with which we’re looking to discover people. And people make it for nothing, so that they can be discovered and hopefully get into the big time. Is this good? I think it’s great that everybody gets to make movies. I mean, it’s not good for me! Because I could be doing much better if everybody couldn’t do it. But if I don’t look at it from my own personal point of view, I go, ‘Well, I mean there’s so much entertainment product out there, I think that’s good.’
I always say when people say, ‘Yeah, I got all this equipment… I got the camera and this and that…’ and I say, ‘I’ve got the same. I’ve got the same paints and canvas. I’ve got the same brushes that Michelangelo had.’ Well, does that mean my paintings are worth anything? It just means I’ve got that equipment. And when you think about everyone being able to make a movie… when I was in high school, I remember Time Magazine did a poll of college students in the US, and everybody wanted to be a novelist. Now everybody wants to be a director and to be a great artist… to be recognised as a deep thinker. Novelists were a big thing, until movies started taking over. Everybody had the ability to get a typewriter and paper. Anybody could write a novel. And everybody did write novels. But how did they ever get anybody to read them? And I think that’s what we’re seeing now. Anybody can make a movie. Everybody’s got their smart phone and their computer. Everybody can do it. But how can they get anybody to watch their movie? How can they develop an audience?That’s an excellent point about having the tools, but not necessarily the skills. I was watching your film Amphibious the other night, and just the week before I had watched another similarly themed aquatic horror. Watching the other film, which likely had a budget comparable to your film, I could tell it was made by a reasonably inexperienced and perhaps uninspired director. When I watched Amphibious, I could tell that there was someone with talent behind it, using the same tools, the same low-budget, but to much greater effect.
Well, thank you.
Speaking of Amphibious, I’ve noticed a lot of the films you’ve made recently have been made in other countries, Amphibious was made in Indonesia and you spent some time in Spain…
I spent seven years in Spain. I did a whole label there called Fantastic Factory. I kind of wanted to this Hammer films thing, you know? And in Indonesia, I tried to do it again, but then we got hit by the big economic collapse. I’ve made movies all over the world. I’ve always found another opportunity… another way to make a movie. When I came out to L.A. to make movies, I didn’t really know anything about it. I just loved the process of it when I tried it. I thought, ‘Wow, if I could make a living doing this, wouldn’t that be great?’ I guess, be careful what you wish for, that’s what I got. I was actually able to make a living for thirty years making movies. Normally, the way I make movies was that… I mean, the majority of the movies I made… I would get the financing and then I’d have to hurry up and try and find a movie to make, which is a little contrary to what most people have. Most people develop a project and then they try to find someone to finance it. I just went the other way around because, even when I made Re-Animator, I was already married with two kids. I wasn’t 22 years old where I could sleep on people’s couches and not make any money while I tried to break in. I had to make money every month to keep my family going. So I really never turned anything down, you know? [laughs]
One of the biggest determinants of how good a movie is has to do with the financing, and that’s something that I usually emphasise with people who want to talk about how to get in the movies or people who are talking about the movie biz or how movies are made. I usually say, ‘I know what you’re interested in… [it’s] the production and post-production of the movie. That’s what you’re really interested in.’ But that’s only a third of the whole business. The first third is the financing, and the last third is getting your money back. Distribution, recoupment — without those two, it’s not the movie business. And if you want to make movies outside of the movie business, well then finance them yourself and make whatever the hell you want, and don’t worry whether you can sell it or not. Then you don’t have to listen to anybody. You don’t have to fit the market, and you can do whatever your vision is, whatever it might be.
The financing of a movie, to me, is like the foundation of a building… of a house. And if the foundation is screwy, or isn’t solid, then your whole house is going to have big problems. That’s the way it works on every movie. That’s where the politics come in. That’s where people are always complaining about ‘the suits’ or the studio. Well, if they don’t need the studio’s money, then don’t put up with it. But whenever you have someone financing it, that’s where the complication comes in.
With Re-Animator, the movie reflected the fact that I was paying for it, that I borrowed the money. Nobody else, just me. Therefore the politics of it were very simple. I love horror, and Stuart’s a great horror guy, so, from my point of view, there was no stress about that part. The big stress was could I get the money back. If you have financing where the financing isn’t all in place and you start making the movie before all the money’s there, well that’s going to really hurt you, because all of the sudden you might start building your house then find our halfway through it you’ve got to make it smaller. But you’ve already built the frame so that it’s bigger, and now the house is going to look really awkward. Or somebody comes in with money who’s got crazy ideas, or you have someone that’s putting up the money and their girlfriend has to be the star. Or you’ve got to use their brother-in-law as the D.P., or who the hell knows.
The distribution is equally as important, because that’s how you get the money back. And if you don’t get the money back, then you can’t make another movie. Most people that are making these indie movies… first of all, their financing… they might get the money from their uncle, or their parents, or they make it for ten thousand bucks and they save it up themselves. So they can make the movie without any problems except not having much money. But when it comes time to distribute it, they’ve made the movie in a vacuum. They haven’t had to listen to anybody else’s ideas. When it’s done, nobody’s invested in it except them and now they need to find somebody to sell it. And now they’re very suspicious, because nobody’s jumping on board. Then maybe they’re going to get a really bad deal in selling. It’s just like me with Empire. I didn’t get the money. A ton of money was made on Re-Animator. Millions. It didn’t come to me. Why? Because I didn’t know the business. Today, that would never happen.
Everybody only wants to talk about production, because that’s the fun part. That’s the inventive part. That’s the storytelling. Everybody loves the part where you spend all this money really quickly on really crazy stuff. But you know… if you can’t sell it, then you’re out of luck. Some people say, ‘Well, I don’t care if [my] movie doesn’t make any money.’ A movie that makes money needs lots of people that are seeing it. Does that mean you don’t want an audience? Isn’t that what everybody wants? Do people write books just so they can read it? Do people write songs just so they can sing it to themselves? There’s no great movies without great audiences. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The reason I went to Spain is that I had a deal there. And I did the best I could with those requirements, which ended up being: you’ve got to do it with Spanish crews. You can see how the movies were affected by that. For example, with the third Re-Animator movie, Beyond Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs and I were the only guys who really had any idea what Re-Animator was. We were shooting in Valencia, Spain with a whole bunch of Spanish crew, Spanish actors who couldn’t speak English that well, so the whole thing has a certain feeling to it that isn’t exactly the way it would have been had we shot in LA. But that’s how the financing happened.
When I went to Indonesia, the same thing. With Amphibious, that went through a lot of layers, a lot of different development. At first it was going to be a movie just for the Indonesian market. It was all Indonesian crew. We had to use Indonesian actors. Then it had to be a movie for the foreign market, so then we were going to shoot it in English. And now one of partners was Dutch and now we had all these Dutch people in it. That movie was really star-crossed, because it happened right during the economic collapse of 2008 to 2010 and all the money was gone. I was trying to finish [a] movie that had no money and that was 3D and trying to do 3D effects. And [the] partners in it were really not the right ones to have. So the movie is affected greatly. Here’s a movie about an underwater monster with no underwater shots! That’s not my choice. [laughs]
I’m just touching on this so when you say, ‘You went to Indonesia… why?’ That’s why. I was just constantly looking for the financing for a movie and knowing every time the financing is always going to affect the movie. Of course it’s easy for me to say, ‘Hey, you know the movies that I did that didn’t work very well? Hey, it wasn’t my fault.’ But on the other hand, real success comes sometimes when you know how much you can bend and how much you can’t, and you make it work. I can certainly see a lot of the weaknesses in most of my movies and I can point to where they come from.
It’s like the movie Rottweiler in Spain. This is a movie about a monster dog and there’s no monster dog. Why? Well, part of it is because the effects of the dog we were doing in LA, the Spanish company didn’t pay the money upfront. They wouldn’t listen that you’ve got to give the guys that do the effects all their budget like eight to twelve weeks before the shooting so they can actually create the effect. So what happens is they get the money at the beginning of shooting and we don’t have any puppet dog until the end of the shoot.
On top of that, they [didn’t] understand that if you’re going to have a real dog, you need six of them, not just one. But they [didn’t] pay for more than one trained dog. I mean, I could go on and on and on with that, and you go, ‘Gee, how come you did a movie about a monster dog and there’s no dog scenes?’ And [I] go, ‘Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m just stupid. What can I say?’ [laughs] ‘Why do a movie of an underwater monster and there’s no underwater shots?’ ‘Oh well, you know, I just didn’t think they’d be necessary.’ [laughs]
[laughs] Well, I’ve honestly enjoyed all your work of recent years. All those Fantastic Factory films — they’re really fun. I particularly like Beneath Still Waters. There’s some really great sequences in that. I think you’ve done an excellent job with limited resources, especially after hearing about the crazy circumstances behind those films!
I even hate to talk about that stuff, because it just seems like someone blaming other people for their failure, but I do think I always deconstruct it. And I look at how the audience reacts to things and if the audience reacts well, then I tend to forget maybe what I really wanted. [laughs]
You never know. A movie ends up being what it is. I think I’m pretty sensitive to a lot of the awkwardness or false notes in my movies. I mean, I’m a moviemaker just because that’s what I decided to do, not because I competed and polished my skills so I could move into this business. I certainly try as hard as I can to kind of learn how to do it well. Of course if I had really big budgets it would all be better. Because with a really big budget movie, maybe it doesn’t quite work well, it’s still such a spectacle. At the end of the day if you took away all the bells and whistles you might see the rough edges a lot more.
I tend to deconstruct things a lot because I want to know how to do it better. So when I deconstruct and when I’m critical, it’s because I’m trying to always think, how do you avoid that next time? If you serve your soup to your guests and nobody says it’s too salty, well next time you’ll still make it too salty. But somebody has to say, ‘Well, I don’t know there’s something about this I’m not getting. I think it may have too much salt.’ ‘Oh yeah, it does have too much salt. I guess I shouldn’t put in so much salt.’ In a simple way, that’s kind of what you do when you deconstruct your own work.
If you write an article for a journal or a magazine, say this interview for example, you might go, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do it all verbatim. That’ll be real.’ And you might find that your readers just won’t even bother with it. If you’re not getting good results from your product, you might go, ‘Well, what interviews do tend to work?’ How do you have to organise them? Do you keep them in the same order? Isn’t all your interview nothing but raw material? It’d be like cutting your movie according to the script. Even Re-Animator, which is the greatest success that I’ve been involved in, the editor took out stuff. He took out scenes. Some things [were] rearranged. Some storylines were taken out. It would have been foolish to do it just the way the script was because that’s what was there. The point I’m making is the same goes for your interview. Theoretically, it’s all just raw material. You could order it any way you want. You could make me seem like a complete idiot, if you wanted to with my own words.
[laughs] It’s okay. I won’t do that.
But you know what I’m saying? I assume that no one would want to interview me that had any ulterior motive because I’m just not important enough. Now if it’s a real famous person, you might want to make them look like fools. You know a movie is kind of that way. You just end up with all this raw material and you try to make something out of it. Shouldn’t you be learning as you go and trying to do better? Of course when you’re younger, you can get by on pure passion and creative energy. And when you get older you tend to think about it a lot more and try to control it more. It’s a different way of working, and I think you can see it almost with anybody that’s been making movies over a certain length of time. You can tell that there’s a difference between the stuff they did when they were younger and the stuff they do when they’re older.
Absolutely. Without reflecting on your work and spotting your flaws, how would you ever improve? Something you just said then about not being important… I mean I think that you’re a very important, vital part of horror history. Do you not see that about yourself?
I’m just talking about if you were going to interview Donald Trump. You might interview him and then just make that interview reflect your feeling about him, and your feeling about him could be very negative. Anybody that’s going to interview me doesn’t have a negative feeling about me. They’re going to have some sort of positive feeling. Now if somebody was assigned to me by some kind of magazine or website or something that wasn’t horror, and they didn’t even like horror, and then they were forced to watch a bunch of my movies, and they just were disgusted by them, then they’re going to change what’s being said.
I did an episode of this German-French TV show, kind of reality show, called Into the Night. They would put two people, sort of creative people, together, bring them to a city, and then follow them with cameras while they spent an evening together. And that would be the show. They had people who were more respectable artists and philosophers and stuff, and then movie people like John Carpenter or Jörg But— what’s his name?
And they asked me to do it in Prague, and I was like thrilled. Somebody’s going to fly me to Prague and pay for my dinner and follow me around, you know? And then they matched me up with the biggest porno producer-director in Europe. This guy Pierre Woodman. [laughs]
They sent me his pornos to look at, and we went to Prague. And you know the first thing they did was they took me out to a boat where he had a bunch of topless girls and stuff. We have cameras and sound and everybody looked at us and I thought that was great, because everybody thinks I’m real important, right? And we walked through the street, we went to a fancy restaurant. They’d bring two cameras and mics everywhere with us so you get this feeling of being very important. It’s wonderful.
I started asking Pierre about his porno world and where he’s coming from. He said his uncle in China had taught him this technique for giving a girl the best orgasm ever. We were talking about that, and what the technique was, which he wasn’t really spilling yet. So that’s what I started focusing on, and, at the end of the night, the last thing he took us to [was] this beautiful rococo place. We did this photo shoot with nude girls and stuff, and the people helping him were girls who were a little older and had been models for him before. When I got there I said, ‘Listen, I’m just going to ask a question,’ – I made sure the camera was on – ‘I want to ask you something. Pierre said that he made each of you have the best orgasm you ever had. Is that true?’ And they kind of demurely said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ [laughs]
And so that was kind of funny, you know? Well, when the director — this German guy — sent me the DVD, he said that this was the first episode of the show that got censored. And it got censored by his producers — the executives at the TV station — not by the government. It turns out that the bosses were women, and they were offended by that. By [Pierre] and by this whole scene. And so they had it recut to make it look like — using the reactions of the girls — to make it look like they were victims. Because to these executives, they couldn’t accept that these girls in Prague — these sexy girls — were doing this, not only by choice, but they were very happy to do it. They were working for him happily. But they couldn’t stand that narrative, so they changed it. And they turned it into its opposite. [laughs] So you can do anything with an interview!
Hmmm. Some heavy manipulation going on there…
Yeah, the media does it all the time.
Brian, I’ve kept you way, way later than I said I would, so just to wrap it up, have you got anything coming out soon?
I’m doing The Plastic Surgeon with Corbin Bernsen. Carving a new face of horror, as we’re saying.
Ah yes. Is that something you’ll be directing as well as producing?
Yeah. I’m going to direct. We’re basically just doing The Dentist, but with a few more bells and whistles.
Fantastic! And when’s that going to be coming out do you think?
We’re still piecing together the financing, so hopefully we’ll shoot it this winter-spring.
Well, as The Dentist is my favourite of your films, I absolutely cannot wait to see that. Thank you for this interview, Brian. I really appreciate it. As you can probably tell, I’m an enormous fan of your work, so it’s been amazing to talk to you.
Thanks a lot. It was fun.
I can’t thank Brian enough for making time in his busy schedule to speak to me. It was a delight to discover that the man behind some of the horror genre’s slimiest, craziest films is as intelligent, friendly and funny as I hoped he would be. Cheers, Brian, and good luck with The Plastic Surgeon!