Legendary Cult Exploitation Filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his most recent film THE UH-OH SHOW and his splatter classic THE WIZARD OF GORE.
TV STORE ONLINE: Herschell... I really enjoyed your most recent film THE UH-OH SHOW (2009) that came out a couple years back....
HGL: Thank you. The original title of the film was GRIM FAIRY TALES. When we started production on the film a lot of people took notice and started asking questions. It became clear to me, that they misunderstood that this wasn't an adaptation of the German Grimms Fairy Tales. So really the movie is built around a television show called Uh-Oh. I wrote and directed this one. This is the first movie that we've shot digitally thus far and I'm just thrilled with the results. We shot it with the RED camera.
We shot this movie like a television show and we had two cameras. So we got it done quickly. It's a trivia game show. If a contestant get's an answer correct, they get a trip to France, a car, some money. But if they don't answer the question right.... "Uh-Oh". Up comes a character called "Radial-Saw Rex." He's a pro wrestler, who carries a radial saw and when the contestant misses the answer to a question they have to spin this wheel. Then Rex comes along and chops off that body part from the contestant.
The difference between this film and my previous splatter classics is that we are moving this whole genre in a more acceptable direction for mainstream movie-goers. Normally in this type of movie, a person who loses an arm or something dies from loss of blood. But in the THE UH-OH SHOW that person just gets annoyed because they keep losing limbs. And if they're picked they can come back next week to try again! The whole thing is a satire. I'm hoping that this type of movie becomes more acceptable to people that normally don't like these types of specialty pictures.
TV STORE ONLINE: As the Writer & Director of THE UH-OH SHOW... What was the influence behind it? Are you staying current with the new wave of Japanese gore cinema?
HGL: No, actually. I've seen enough of this stuff. I'm not a fan of the kinds of movie that I make. What I've noticed about modern horror films is that they're all very alike. Years ago, when we made BLOOD FEAST (1963) which started the gore genre with people where always saying to me "Hey, let's make BLOOD FEAST 2 (2002)." I got tired and annoyed by people telling me this. So my usual response was a defense mechanism "OK, Put a deal together and call me!" So finally, this guy named Jackie Morgan put a deal together and called me. It wasn't my script, my cast, nor my crew. I was just a hired hand. I wasn't involved in the editing either. But my creative juices began to flow again, and I started noodling around with this script for THE UH-OH SHOW. But I kind of just let it sit around my house. I just figured that if I got the chance I would do it.
TV STORE ONLINE: You had a cameo in that Canadian made horror film SMASH CUT (2009) a few years back... I was just curious to get your opinion on that film and how does it make you feel when people say that they where influenced by you?
HGL: If I'm regarded as a bad influence... If someone goes out and strangles their neighbor because they saw BLOOD FEAST then I'm unhappy. But if someone tells me that I influenced them for good, then usually it's someone I want to have as a friend. These people who made SMASH CUT seemed to be wonderful people. And I'm in the movie actually, I've got a bit part. I think we did that up in Ottawa. I wasn't too sure how my character was going to relate to the other characters in the film though. I look smug and grim in it...laughing
TV STORE ONLINE: You were born in Pittsburgh... But you managed to make your way to Chicago, and then eventually to Florida. How did that all happen?
HGL: OK, I'll give you my personal odyssey. I was born in Pittsburgh. My dad died when I was six years old. My mom struggled to keep my brother and I off the bread line. Her whole family was from Chicago. So she decided that the symbol of family would be better served if we moved to Chicago. We moved there when I was thirteen years old. I decided that some day, I was going to have a piece of property with a palm tree on it. When I got older... I was doing business with a company in Minnesota. And they had a business in Florida. So we got in good with this company and my wife Margo and I decided we were tired of the winter, so we moved to Florida. Life is good here in Florida.
TV STORE ONLINE: In the early 80's...During the VHS era, I can remember seeing Joe Bob Briggs offering for sale your movies through Fangoria magazine. Do you feel like the VHS effort and the DVD efforts of Something Weird Video have helped your legacy all these years later?
HGL: There wouldn't have been a legacy had it not been for Mike Varney and Jimmy Maslon at Something Weird Video. I really thought my movies were dead and gone actually. You must remember... We made these movies for nothing. So I figured we'd never see them again. So along comes Jimmy Maslon, whose made a career out of buying up these old movies. He cut a deal at Something Weird for distribution and suddenly I was reborn. A few years back... I was sitting in my office and the phone rang. The person said "I found you!" I said "Well, I'm not in the witness protection program." He then told me he had read an article about me in a direct marketing magazine, and he figured there couldn't be another person named Herschell Gordon Lewis."
So, after feeling a little suspicious...I began a dialogue with them and they invited me to come to New York for a screening of my movie, THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970). At that time I had been paid to write a book on Norman Rockwell and I had to pay my own way up to New York for the book research. So I figured why not use this movie invite to get the trip up to New York done. Initially, I was worried that going to a screening of my movie would be a good time at my expense. Kind of like a lampoon thing. I was just hoping people wouldn't throw things at me.
So I went to New York, and the screening was a lot of fun. And it was a good time. It was a renaissance, and it wasn't at my expense either. These Something Weird guys are gentleman. And I discovered that there was a lot of money to be made yet. When I initially let my movies go, I had no idea that all these years later people would still be watching these things. And now, Turner Classic Movies is showing TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964) and BLOOD FEAST on television.
TV STORE ONLINE: That must have been a nice feeling to see just how important your movies are to culture all these years later?
HGL: It's like having some of your children come home after they've said goodbye forever.
TV STORE ONLINE: What about THE WIZARD OF GORE? How did that film come about?
HGL: Well, as you may know we shot most of the movies down in Florida. But THE WIZARD OF GORE we did in Chicago. The idea, was about a magician whose tricked really worked! He saws a women in half, and she's really just been cut in half! It was a jinxed picture. When we were about to shoot. A guy called me, his name was Roger Strouse. He said he was my cousin and that he wanted to work with me on this movie. I couldn't pass an intern down. It's an extra body that you don't have to pay. So I put him on the crew of THE WIZARD OF GORE. Finally we came to the scene where "Montag" tears that girl's body in half. We bought a goat carcass. We got some chicken skin. Chicken skin is almost as good as mortician's wax.
I always did the electric hook up on any set we used. Or if we shot at someone's house, or at someone's store, people always worried that we where gonna blow them up! So we're shooting at this really fancy apartment near the lake in Chicago. So Roger said, "I can hook up the electric. You go direct the actors." Roger hooked it up wrong and started a fire. We were careful not to make a mess on this apartment. We took the goat carcass and laid it on a K-mart rug we bought and the fire department comes and throws the goat carcass out the door. There went my effect. It was jinxed.
All THE WIZARD OF GORE theater scenes where shot at an high school auditorium in Highland Park. We were using a Mitchell camera. And one of the crew said "Hey, you've got some dirt in your aperture." So he took the camera apart, cleaned it, and put it back. I didn't think much about it. So we shot out the day, and I sent the film off to the lab. The next day the lab calls me and says "Stop!" When the crew member put the aperture plate back in the camera, it wasn't lined up right so when the film was pulled down in the camera, which happened every 1/50th of a second, it was exposing between the frames. We lost an entire day of shooting. Again, it was a jinxed film.
We used Ray Sager on THE WIZARD OF GORE. He was a great kid. He was working on the crew and he was always willing to do anything. He always had a smile on his face. The actor I hired to play Montag didn't get along with the executive producer, so he left. We needed a new Montag so I looked over at Ray Sager. We put some white grease in his hair and he became Montag.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you feel about THE WIZARD OF GORE remake?
HGL: Typical question. The director is very talented. But it's not the same picture. I can't really understand why he even used the title THE WIZARD OF GORE. He put Crispin Glover in a white suit. All the effects happen behind the stage and not on stage.
TV STORE ONLINE: Of all the films you've made... Which is your favorite?
HGL: Oh, That's easy... TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS! It's my personal statement. I wrote the music for the movie too. When I first made BLOOD FEAST, I was going around getting estimates on how much it would cost to get the music done. And it was outrageous. So I decided I'd just do it myself. Well, I gotta tell you, I've never worked harder on anything! But once you get it right, it's a marvelous feeling. We brought in a musical group to do the theme of TWO-THOUSAND MANIACS! I knew exactly what I wanted there. We took the cast and crew into a recording studio in Orlando to do the "Yee-Haw" for the song. The singer for the group was a high tenor, and that wasn't working. People were tired and wanted to go to dinner. So, since I knew everything about it I just decided, and without screen credit, to just sing it myself. It was a lot of fun, and now every time I appear at a convention or film festival people ask me to sing it to them, and I am delighted to do it.
TV STORE ONLINE: What's your music background?
HGL: Well, when I was a kid, like seven years old. I took violin lessons. All the kids did. But I got good enough to play in the high school orchestra. This was a crossroads for me. One day, our normal conductor was out sick and his fill-in walked up to me, and said "How can you play violin with hands that big?" And this destroyed me, it ruined me. So had it not been for him, who knows -- Maybe I could've been the conductor for the Philadelphia Harmonic Orchestra.
What he should've said was " Hey with those hands, you'd be a genius on cello." I've always noodled around on instruments. We've always had a piano. I find it amazing that people that score movies make such a big deal out of it. The idea of scoring for motion pictures is really to under-score it. If someone is watching a movie and they turn off their television set and say "Wasn't the background music, beautiful?" The person that made that movie made a very big mistake. Because attention is given to the supporting elements of the film.
TV STORE ONLINE: You once said that "Filmmaking is a business and that anyone that looks at it as an art form should feel sorry for themselves." Do you still feel this way?
HGL: I will feel that way until the end of time. Because people who want to sell their ego by making movies are not making movies, but just diddling themselves. It's a disservice, unless their self financing. If I had lots of money I'd do whatever I please. But if I have some producers with money, it's my job to produce a product to return their investment, not to lose it. I've seen this, there are some that are working were you go on their set, and if you try to suggest something they look at you, like you're hurting their child. I wish you could've seen it. On the set of my new movie THE UH-OH SHOW I had a rule. Anyone and I mean anyone can make a suggestion without getting laughed at. A lot of the picture's dialogue and the effects and settings are the result of conversations with the crew, nothing is sacred except for the fact that we need to make an entertaining movie!
This Interview was conducted by Justin Bozung
For more information on Herschell Gordon Lewis, please visit his official website, www.herschellgordonlewis.com