Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Frank Henenlotter - An interview.

Henenlotter titles 2

Halloween. One of those eve’s that’s quite special for me and most other fans of genre movies. It’s a special moment when for one weekend our passion for the odd and grotesque kinda' get’s accepted and the most unexpected people ask advice for horror movies to watch. If it’s someone you like you suggest some classic piece that you know will deliver, or if it’s someone you don’t like, you suggest some obnoxious piece of atrocity that you get a sadistic kick from knowing they suffered through. Because they would never enjoy it like you would.

But this year there was a special treat in store for Swedish fans of cinema as the splendid guys and gals at Njutafilms/SubDVD where hosting what they called HENENLOTTER HORROR HALLOWEEN a mini festival which also celebrated their release of Henenlotter's latest movie Bad Biology on DVD and BluRay.

A packed schedule offered up Brain Damage and Bad Biology on the big screen and a short Q&A with Frank. Frank, who slipped over to the Cinematheque theatre next door to watch Buster Keaton in Charles F. Reisner’s Steamboat Jr. (1928) whilst the rest of us enjoyed Brain Damage on a gritty 35mm print. Henenlotter would later during the Q&A explain that he’d gone to see Steamboat Jr. because he’s a huge Keaton fan, commented, that if you want understand movies, you have to see everything. You can’t judge good movies if you don’t know bad movies, you have to know it all. Henenlotter has a very vital point there, and something that we genre fans certainly can get behind. So a decent bunch of fans gathered at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, home to some of the greatest movies ever made, to participate in the event. An even that took a prestigious place of culture and for one evening turned it into a 42nd Street Grindhouse Theatre.

Anyhow, seizing the moment, I came prepared to go face to face with Henenlotter all on my own. Being the great guy he is, Frank gave me more time than I ever dared ask for, and this is the result, the Cinezilla interview with the great Frank Henenlotter.

Jason: So Mr. Henenlotter, how would you describe you movies?

Henenlotter: They’re eccentric. I don’t think they’re Horror movies, I think of them as exploitation films. Well I think Brain Damage [1988] and Basket Case [1982] are horror, Frankenhooker [1990] is all out comedy. But even Brain Damage and Basket Case don’t behave properly, they aren’t mainstream, they are eccentric. But I don’t feel eccentric is a bad word, but they are just off kilter. Even I think they are off kilter. I don’t look at them and think “Oh that’s normal” I look at them and go “Oh Jesus!” As soon as I have a little distance on them I’m like “Hell! Oh well, alright!” They are not easy for me to evaluate.

J: What do you feel attracts audiences to horror and exploitation genres?

H: Well probably because they are usually dealing with subject matter that they wouldn’t normally find elsewhere. Also people like sex and violence, if they didn’t it wouldn’t be found in films. Horror films are rude, there not prim, there not proper, they’re not artsy fartsy, they are down and dirty and they go for the jugular and I think there’s a lot of room for that in the world.

J: So what’s Frank Henenlotter’s back-story? What got you started in movies and what influenced you?

H: Well I was influenced by movies period. I was a really lonely kid because I was so goddamned obnoxious and I spent most of my time watching movies, because I wasn’t lonely when I watched movies. So I watched tons of movies on television and eventually when I was fifteen I just started cutting high school, getting on a train and heading in to Manhattan to 42nd Street and Times Square. That’s where I started to devour exploitation films, and then on the other hand New York also had repertoire theatres so movies that I’d seen on TV I now had an access to theatres that would allow me to see the same movies on 35mm film. It was great to be in my twenties and see a beat-up big screen 35mm print of something like Kiss Me Deadly [Robert Aldrich 1955]; it had a hell of an impact on me. So I had a good diet, and it wasn’t like I favoured one over the other, it’s like food you know, you have an appetite for more than one flavour. I just loved them, and the mechanics of them and I liked playing with the same thing myself when I started making amateur movies. I never planned on this to be a career; I still don’t think it has been. I just made some movies on the side, and I’m kind of happy with that. Because I think that if I had made it a career, my concerns would have been making movies for the money. I love film so much that I don’t want to use it to pay the rent, and I’d rather not make movies, than make movies I don’t want to make. There was way too much of that in the early nineties, a producer would come to me and say “Boy, I really like your stuff, I have a script…” and it was some mediocre, boring slasher film no different than a hundred and fifty others that you have seen. So you know I’d read it, I didn’t like it and I’d ask if I could re-write it, and they’d say “Yeah sure that’s why we want you to do it. Re-write it, but just don’t change anything.” [Laughs] Well I don’t know how to do that, so that never happened.

J: So what can you tell me about the origins of Basket Case?

H: Well, I was shooting 16millimeter films for myself, and then I met Edgar Ievens, the producer of all the films except Bad Biology [2008], and he said “Why don’t we try to make a commercial film?” and I said Well why not! I thought it would be fun to do, and we decided to do a horror film, because you can do them cheap, and I also thought if I make a horror film and I really screw it up, they who care’s because it will still play on 42’nd Street. But I was caught off guard as it didn’t play 42’nd Street, but was released as a Midnight Movie and went another route, which really threw me. When we decided to do a commercial film I started thinking of titles and collecting titles that hadn’t been used yet, so I’m running titles though my head, titles, titles, titles, and at some point I thought of Basket Case. And when I did, I had this idiot image of something like a malignant jack in the box. A monster in a basket case, and when you open the lid… Blargh, it kills ya! That was it, and with that visual I started thinking of the plot.

J: And where did you go from that initial concept?

H: Well the first obstacle was - why would any idiot walk around with a monster in a basket? So you more or less ask yourself questions and see where you can go with it.

J: The next movie, Brain Damage saw you going into a more artistic area…

H: No, no… well yeah, maybe. It is artier than the others, but it was really Bad Biology where I made a deliberate attempt at making something that looks arty just to go against the grain of the subject matter. I thought that would create a nice friction, being a film that looks like an art film, but wasn’t behaving like one. I think Brain Damage looks arty by default as I was playing with colour. And not even arty, I was just throwing around a lot of blue.

J: So what lead up to you returning from your 18-year absence with Bad Biology?

H: The producer R.A. [Thorburn], the Rugged Man, and I had been friends for years ten years at least and always though wouldn’t it be fun if we could do a movie together. And at some point someone told him they would give him X amount of dollars for a film and he came to me and asked if that was enough to make a movie with. It wasn’t really but I thought, let’s not the opportunity go. So I started thinking. For such little money we couldn’t really make a horror film, because we can’t afford special effects, CGI or make up effects so what are we left with… so I go - well you know there’s sex. Because if we shoot a sex film… Shit, that doesn’t cost anything and sex still upsets people. It really doesn’t mater what you do. Hell, a naked guy upsets people. So we thought, Ok let’s do a sex film unlike any sex film anyone has ever seen… and it’s kinda' different.

J: It sure is, and it has one of the best opening lines in a long time, “I was born with seven clits!” That instantly makes it a movie I want to sit though.

H: Yeah it is. That’s the fun of it, that was our opening line and where can you go from there! [Laughs]

J: So what do you feel is different making films in the eighties compared to now?

H: Well in the eighties there was a market for them and you could sell them. You can’t sell them today, there’s no market for them. So in the eighties the interest was strong and you still had enough theatres left in America or even globally that would play the stuff, you know, the stuff that’s other than Hollywood product. And all that’s gone. All those theatres are all gone, those companies are gone and Hollywood owns something like 99 % of the theatres left. So a lot of things have changed with that. Also I think the prime audience who have always been a young audience, are so removed from say the eighties that they don’t have any awareness of the heritage or culture of exploitation cinema. So something like Bad Biology may look even more ridiculous, or more outrageous or more what the fuck is it than unusual, than it really does because it’s being watched by people without any references to that kind of film.

J: Yeah, that’s true. I feel that quite a lot when talking to people who don’t know their genre history. And it’s kind of a shame about 42nd Street being “cleaned up” by Giuliani and his gang. I would have loved to see it in its heyday.

H: Yeah unfortunately. But it was Disney actually, because Disney wanted to invest in Broadway. The best theatre on 42nd Street was the New Amsterdam, it was the most occulent, and of course it was covered in dirt and grime and debris and stuff. But even when you saw it at its lowest point you could tell that this was a great theatre. It was home to the Ziegfried Follies, it had a second storey theatre up on the rooftop. All the theatres on 42nd Street had a rich theatrical history. At the Harris Theatre, John Barrymore performed Hamlet, at the Sutherland Theatre W.C. Fields appeared in Poppy. You know, these where major Broadway shows, with major talent. But the street got seedy very quickly, in the thirties it was already showing movies as apposed to theatre, then it had burlesque and it had really a torrid history of crime and violence in the area… and porno stores. That was half the charm of growing up there, in between every theatre there was a porn store. Well in the sixties they weren’t really porn stores, they where adult book stores, and a lot of dirty magazines from Sweden where there. [Laughs] So when Disney said that they where interested in buying the New Amsterdam Theatre for themselves, what they said to the city was “We’ll stick X million dollars into this, but what we can’t have families being exposed to pornography and filth. So they said clean it up and yeah, Giuliani came up with a theory where they zoned the stores out. They waited for all the leases to run dry, some over ten years, and then just acquired the buildings and it’s heartbreaking to someone like me. Like I said, I went there as a kid but never encountered crime. Sure, I could see it, but if you weren’t buying drugs, or hookers, or male prostitutes, or gambling at three-card Monty or something, then nobody cared! Nobody mugged you or robbed you, it was a paradise. A sleazy paradise, but still a paradise.

J: That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

H: No not at all, I felt very comfortable with it. But there’s no trace of it anymore. None. None whatsoever, it’s like I’m describing an extinct dinosaur.

J: In Basket Case 2 & 3 [1990, 1992], you expanded the universe of the original movie. What made you want to go back to those characters?

H: First of all Basket Case is its own story, they died at the end and they’d killed the Doctors, the story was over. So where do you go, what do you do for part two? Well OK, they didn’t die – Yeah of course they died – but you have them taken to hospital, it wasn’t that big of a stretch. And who where the villains in this one? We’d already exhausted those in the first one. I also didn’t want to remake Basket Case because so many sequels retrace the same thing. I know that was an unpopular decision amongst some fans who don’t like part two, because it doesn’t have that seedy squalor of the first one. Well, I already made that one so let’s make something else, so I decided to expand it into a community of freaks and even then, set it inside a beautiful estate, a mansion that you wouldn’t expect things to be in. And I’ve always liked the film; I like the film very much. I saw it just the other night for the first time since it played theatrically – I don’t usually watch my own stuff – but I thought it held up really nice. I wish more people would see it.

J: Yeah, I enjoy it because of the expansion with all the fantastic freaks and stuff.

H: Yeah, Gabe Bartalos created this incredible army of mutants and it’s just wonderful. The most beautiful creepy sculptures you will ever see. The freaks are great stuff.

J: What’s the process when you create the creatures? Do you sketch them or is it all in the script and how do you actually get them out in reality?

H: In some cases I have no preconceived notes, and in some, like the main monster of the film, I have some kind of idea, just vague. Then I’ll explain them to Gabe and he’ll do sketches or may do a clay mock-up to see if that’s what I had in mind. And I’ll sometimes be like well that’s pretty damned close, what if we just try this or try that and you know, we go through a slow process until we’re both happy with it. We’ve never had a special effect that he liked and I didn’t, or vice versa. The penis baby in Bad Biology… Jesus, that took us a while because I always knew what the last shot was, I knew that you’d only see it from one angle, and that you have to get the joke right away – it’s only on camera for like less than forty seconds tops – you had to get the joke in a flash and it had to move, it’s my punch line and what can we do with it? And if we embellish it too much, you won’t see the penis. So you had to see the penis and realise that it’s a baby, and that took quite a bit of time to figure out. When Gabe sculpted it he only sculpted it from the viewpoint of what the camera was going to see. He knows I’m not going to change the angle, I’m not going to add a shot, I’m not going to move and see it in reverse. Especially with special effects you have to plan all that out carefully or else you are just throwing money right out the window. You know no makeup man is going to create a monster that can do everything, but you can create many monsters where each one has specific functions as long as you know what it has to do, where the angle is, how the scene is cut, it’s all magic tricks. It’s all misdirection.

J: There’s quite a lot of build and anticipation before you unleash, or reveal the “Monster” in your movies, like Basket Case where almost every second line of dialogue refers to “What’s in the case?”. Do you feel that it’s vital to keep it hidden from the audience as long as possible?

H: You’ve got to give it context. If you show it right at the beginning, what do you build off? I think that it’s just in the writing. It’s just the context of if, just keep them guessing and then deliver it, do a variation on it and get the hell out fast. [Laughs]

J: Where do you come up with the inspiration for these great characters?

H: I don’t know, you just do it, you just write. I have no idea really, you just write. If you’re doing Bad Biology and have a character with that defect, then where does he/she go, what was it like, what if that was you, and you’ll figure it out.

J: I feel that most of your movies all have quite empathetic characters.

H: Well that’s the way it should be in every film isn’t it. That’s all.

J: Yeah, but a terribly lot of genre films miss that vital part completely.

H: Well if you don’t have empathy for your characters, then why are you watching it, why should you care? You know, that’s like basic; and all the good movies I have seen have empathetic characters. But I know what you are saying, because every slasher film you see they are like cardboard, you don’t care if they get laid or if they get killed. It’s like; fine just kill ‘em.

J: Get it over with!

H: Yeah really, please kill them. [Laughs]

J: You’re very much, a hands on filmmaker. You write, you direct, and you’ve edited most of your movies. What’s your favourite part of the process?

H: Writing it. That’s the best part you know, because that’s when you have the full film in your head, and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle and you solved it, and if you did a good job you can believe it. Then I also love the editing, but the actual making it, the directing, it’s just horrible. It’s horrible, it’s just work. I never really said that I wish I was on a movie set right now working. You know, it’s just awful, it’s really difficult, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, you never have enough time, you never have enough money, everyone’s complaining… [Laughs] … and sometimes it’s pretty damned awful. I know when I did Frankenhooker, the whole crew hated me, the whole cast hated me, except for Patty Mullen, and it was terrible, terrible, it was like, oh god, no matter what the scene was I’d yell cut and I’d laugh and I could see people everywhere just rolling their eyes, shaking their heads going oh he doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand how terrible this movie is. But that’s just something you have to deal with because that’s part of it, and there’s a lot of politics with crew and casts, and that’s why I’d rather keep it small. The less people, the less problems.

J: There’s an old storytelling phrase that goes something like, you never make one movie, you make three; the one you write, the one you shoot and the one you edit. Can you recognise that in your own work?

H: You’ll never make the movie you write. It’s impossible it’s like trying to paint a dream. It’s just impossible, it’s fluid in your head, and it’s a movie without the practical reality of life or the real dimensions of it you know. And editing it, well if you have done you job with the film and you shot it right, well then it will edit correctly. In my case, I don’t have the luxury of shooting footage. With 4700 feet of 35millimeter film to shoot Bad Biology, you have to do one to three shooting ratio. There’s no deleted scenes, there’s no extra scenes, and there’s only one shot we cut because we fucked up, that’s about it. And if you don’t get the performance, then you can’t keep working on it. You have to stop and figure out what’s wrong, change it or work with the actor right away on the spot or something or else you don’t have it. And when you edit you should only improve it, it shouldn’t change it.

J: How important do you feel that sex is to genre film?

H: Let’s put it like this, how important is it to life? It’s all everyone ever thinks about. Guys obsess over it every minute of the day, women think about it, not as much as guys do, but it’s all any guy I know thinks about. It’s all I ever think about. Have you ever spent a day in your life not thinking about fucking someone, ever? Have you ever walked down a street and not looked at people going I wonder what they look like naked or, I’d like that one… It’s impossible! So why shouldn’t films be sexual as well. Except for one exception, and that’s porn. Porn is so fucking boring, it’s just like, oh my god, now that you see it, its like, I might as well watch a real movie. I guess what you have to do is just tease with it.

J: I was watching Basket Case last night and there’s a great scene that shows how teasing can work in benefit to scare an audience. There’s that scene towards the end of the movie where Duane [Kevin Van Hentenryck] and Sharon [Terri Susan Smith] finally connect. She’s on the bed, he’s on top of her, they are both still clothed, and the movie really slows down into a very tender and delicate moment. You’re expecting to see some skin and Blam! Belial launches out of the basket shouting and screaming and it’s a really effective shock moment. It gets me ever damned time. The sex teases and the shock moment still delivers a sucker punch.

H: Well you know, you’re dealing with two males in a room arguing over who gets the girl. And that’s basic; it’s real. That happens every night in every bar. But that was back then. These days, well, I don’t know… You know a film like Halloween [John Carpenter 1978] kind of set the template. The good girl that lives as a virgin, the bad girl get killed first, which makes sense, as they are the ones that will be showing the nudity… But it’s become a formula that is absolutely stale. What is the point of going to a horror film if it’s going to be the same old thing? All this fantasy it’s all kept in a conventional box, you know, it’s not allowed to come out! It’s as if the joy of years of going to see horror movies is gone. You want see stuff that isn’t reality, you want to see breakthroughs, you want to see every convention turned on its head. You don’t want to be comfortable; you want to see the hero die, or something come out of the left field. You don’t want to be sitting there feeling oh now I can go and get more popcorn now because they just killed that one and I know there’s ten minutes to the next one, and you can almost guess in those films what the death order will be. It’s boring.

J: Yeah basically the generic slasher stuff goes that way; it’s too predictable to be bothered with really. Finally, if one of your movies ever got singled out for a big budget, all in remake, which one would it be, and why?

H: Well it’s going to be Basket Case. That’s the one they want. I’ve already had offers for it, but most of the offers where for low budget films as they obviously thought we can do this fast and cheap. Well I already did that version. I already did the low budget fast and cheap version, so I don’t really see any point in doing that version. This is a film that I own, it’s my first film, and I don’t just want to sell it and not know who’s making it. But, as we’re talking there is a serious offer out there and I like it. I like the people involved and I like the direction they want to take it. We’re still at the talking stage and I don’t know how real this is, but if it does it’s going to be like that. The direction they want to take with the story I really like. It makes sense as it’s simultaneously a remake and a thoughtful extension. Taking the premise and looking at it in a very different way. But I’ll tell you the one nobody will ever remake… they will never remake Bad Biology!

J: Oh, Never say never. Twenty years from now some one might just be looking through some past stuff and go, Hey that’s the one we got to remake, so never say never.

H: Yeah, well, you never know.

J: Ok, well, Mr. Henenlotter. Thanks for taking the time. Have a great stay in Stockholm and keep up the great work.

H: Sure, Thanks!

I’d like want to thank the NjutaFilms/SubDVD team for organising this event, a fist full of good mates who also attended the event, making it even more memorable, and most of all Frank Henenlotter who took the time to sit down and entertain one of the minions with his exhilarating tales of making low budget gems. After our session we continued talking about a whole load of stuff ranging from migraines and painkillers to movies like Sweden Heaven and Hell (Svezia, inferno e paradiso) 1968, the several edits of Reptillicus (1961), Invasion of the Animal People (Rymdinvasion in Lappland) 1959 and all the fan pressure that comes with releases like those titles, through contemporary horror I though he should check out – the stuff that isn’t generic and predictable, also Frank’s work with Something Weird Video, and the recently completed documentary on Hershell Gordon Lewis (H.G.L. – The Godfather of Gore) 2010 which Henenlotter shared editing duties on. Needless to say and to follow up the quote he left on facebook a few days previously “We’ll have a blast in Stockholm!” And we most certainly did.

We most certainly did.


Ninja Dixon said...

Thank you, a great interview!

Carl said...

Very nice interview!

Nicolas said...

Wouah, great interview. Thanks for coming to filmhuset!

CiNEZiLLA said...

Thanks guys. It was a great day!

Aylmer said...

Killer J.

His description of the monster designing/building process with Gabe Bartalos is fascinating. Interesting to hear about it from a standpoint of really having to spend EVERY CENT wisely. The same for the filming, not a foot of film wasted if you can help it.

But I'm having a geekgasm about the prospect of a bigger budget B.C. remake - made with Frank's approval by a director he respects? Wow, it's just such an unlikely and weird idea that it makes me giddy.

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