Quantcast Gary Sherman interview

Director
Gary Sherman!!!

What a treat! Icons Of Fright got to spend some time talking to director Gary Sherman, the man behind the camera for 'DEATH LINE' (or as we know it in the US 'RAW MEAT'), the cult classic 'DEAD & BURIED', 'VICE SQUAD' and 'POLTERGEIST 3'. Gary tells us about his experiences on ALL those films and brings us up to speed on his latest shocker '39: A FILM BY CAROLL MCKANE'. Read on, folks!!! - by Robg. 8/06


What are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember the first film to really have an impact on you and open you up to the world of horror?

Vincent Price’s ‘HOUSE OF WAX’ in 3D. I saw it when I was just a little kid around 5 or 6 years old and I went with my brother to see it in 3D. Basically, from the beginning with the guy with the ping pong balls shooting them out into the audience, I was scared. (laughs) The rest of it just blew me away. I thought that was one of the scariest things I had ever seen and from that point I just got more and more interested in horror films. I grew up in Chicago, and there was this television program on Saturday nights called SHOCK THEATRE with Marvin, who was a host in a black turtle-neck sweater and glasses that looked like coke bottles. They ran all the old ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ horror movies. All the ‘Hammer’ stuff. ‘Wolfman Meets Frankenstein’. I was addicted to that when I was a kid.

My friend Nathan Herman, who actually ended up as a writer for Saturday Night Live, he went the opposite direction – he went into comedy (laughs). But Nathan and I would spend every Saturday night together since grammar school. We’d go over one or the other’s house and other kids would come too just to watch ‘SHOCK THEATRE’ every Saturday night. It familiarized me with all the old & great classic horror films.

Do you remember what it was that sparked your interest into the way films were made and what is was that helped you decide that you wanted to become involved in filmmaking in some capacity?

Filmmaking came to me in a whole different way. I never knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I knew I was an artist in some form. I had played music from the time I was a little kid, and I also painted and drew. I’d done sculpture. And at a very early age, I went to Saturday school at the Art Institute of Chicago and studied art & painting. I was really into it. Music was also a really important part of my life. All art in general. I was in search of a medium and ended up at the Institute of Design. It’s an art school that allows you to just venture into every aspect of art in the modern world. I had discovered film. I found an old Aeroflex camera in a closet at school and I just started shooting film. I had no idea that I wanted to be a filmmaker, until I discovered that Aeroflex. I was working at a record company at the time as a session musician, to help me to work my way thru school. And I was doing a session with Bo Diddley and I asked Bo if I could shoot some footage of him, and he said “Sure.”

That film ended up being my first movie, which was a documentary called ‘The Legend Of Bo Diddley’. It got sold to 75 television stations around the world, and won a bunch of awards and the next thing I knew I was a filmmaker. It was all an accident. My first dramatic film was a little 10 minute short that I shot called ‘Cry Angel’, which was a little horror movie. I just thought I could really get in touch with that sensibility of fear. I’ve talked about this a lot in other interviews, but I was really affected by a series of murders that took place when I was a kid in Chicago, and they really traumatized me. It was on the front page of the paper everyday and I used to have nightmares about it. I suppose trying to fight off these fears and overcome this phobia that I’d developed about it was why I started to learn as much as I could about that aspect of life and serial killers and things like that. I thought the more I knew, the less fearful I’d be. It really just increased my fear. (laughs)

That’s interesting, because I think a lot of people are fans of the horror genre for the same reason, to attempt to conquer these fears.

I’m very in touch with my fears, and I understand my fears. Very early in my career, in sequewaying into dramatic and narrative films, I found that fear was an area I could really get into. When I started writing, I found that if I could scare myself, I could scare anybody. That’s where… Scary Gary was born. (laughs)

Your first foray into horror is the fan favorite ‘Death Line’ (AKA ‘Raw Meat’). You came up with the story, and directed it in 1972. It’s a film that at this point, the story has been replicated dozens of times. What were the origins behind the story for ‘Death Line’? Weren’t you living in London at the time?

I lived in London, yeah. I had a pretty successful commercial career going. And everyone kept saying to me “Make a feature film. Make a feature film.” The two industries – the commercial industry or the advertising industry and the feature film industry in England were pretty tight. Everybody worked in both genres. So, finally I asked “Well, how do you get a feature film made?” And people told me, well you have to write something. So, I thought “Well, what should I write?” I started working on different ideas, and I always liked horror and someone told me “I bet if you write a really good horror script, you’d get it made”.

So, that’s what I set out to do. I was fascinated by the London Tube system and I’m a real stickler for reality & research. I’m like a sponge. I need to learn about everything that surrounds me in my life. I started reading more and more about the London Tube system and I found out all this stuff about a 100 different companies that were involved in building the tubes. There were cave-in’s and people were killed and it was a huge scandal. It wasn’t until some time later that they merged all the companies together and created London Transport.

I just got into the whole history of all of that. And then there was something else that I had read about which was a whole clan of people out in Scotland during the 15 th or 16 th century called the Bean clan. Sawney Bean, which was an old Scottish legend. I had read this book about Sawney Bean who was a highway man who had become so notorious, and the price on his head so high, that he didn’t trust anyone. He took in his brothers and his cousins and all those that were involved with him – and put together this highway men mob that would rob coaches going from one place to another. But they became so notorious that they had to hide in these caves along the Scottish coast.

They had all this money but they had nothing do to with it because they couldn’t go anyplace to spend their money, so what they started doing was not only robbing these people, but they’d start killing them, and taking the bodies and smoking the bodies. They became cannibals. They ate their victims because they were starving & because they couldn’t go anyplace to get food. It went on for generations. Then finally, I think it was during the reign of King James, he sent the army in, because they found a smoked arm floating in the water and they followed the tides back and went and found these caves filled with these cannibals. They were all taken back to Glasgow. The men were hanged and the women were burned at the stake as witches. The whole Sawney Bean story always fascinated me. And suddenly I had the idea, why not put Sawney Bean and the building of the Tubes together for a story.

That’s great. In fact, I believe that Wes Craven was also inspired by the Sawney Bean story for ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, which was a few years after ‘Death Line’.

Well, I’m not going to point any fingers. Lots of people did lots of things that were similar. (laughs) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a lot of things that were reminiscent of ‘Death Line’. There were lots of films, even up to today that have resemblances to ‘Death Line’. And why not? It’s like Picasso said, “Mature artists emulate. Immature artists steal.” (laughs) That’s what we all do. You usually copy from something that went down before.

I love Wes though. I love his work. He’s one of the greats of our genre. But there are a lot of pictures I’ve seen that I think have stolen ideas straight from ‘Death Line’. My great friend Guillermo Del Toro, who I think is one of the great gifts to our genre, credits his whole career to ‘Death Line’. He’s told me he first saw it when he was 8 years old and that it inspired him. In every one of his films has at least one scene that’s a tribute to ‘Death Line’.

Wow. I never knew that.

He wrote a whole article about it in ‘Sight and Sound’. He’s an amazing guy. Pan’s Labyrinth is great.

In ‘Death Line’ (‘Raw Meat’), about 20 minutes into the film, you’ve got this incredible shot – it begins with a rat eating a piece of meat and slowly pans left in a 360 angle to reveal a bunch of bodies and the whole underground set piece. How much preparation went into achieving this shot and how difficult was it to pull off? Because for me, it’s one of my favorite moments of the entire film.

Well, thank you very much. The shot is 8 and a half minutes long and it’s the entire reel 4 of the movie, back in the days when films were reel to reel. (laughs) I wrote it into the script. That shot is detailed moment for moment the way it takes place in the script. I had no money to make that film. We made it for pennies. Especially pennies based on today’s budget!

That whole shot was done using a very primitive piece of equipment and a elemack, which was basically a studio pedestal, a hydraulic post on wheels. And you could drop on it, but you couldn’t go up, because you’d have to pump it up with a pedal. So there’s no way to rise on it, it’s only drop down. And then we put a mini-jib, which is basically a balancing arm with the camera on one side. We didn’t have video assists back then. So, the operator actually had to be holding the camera on the mini-jib and a grip would work the arm to raise it lower as needed and it was on track.

Basically the answer to your question is we spent one day setting the shot, lighting it, rehearsing it, we laid the track & the track had to be covered with hay as we went along so you wouldn’t see the track. Also, the camera does the 360 of the man’s larder and then comes back up and thru the window of the door, and shows the door into the next room and then it goes out thru the next door. We rehearsed all those tricks. At the end of the day, the producers came down to set.

Now, I’m pretty fast. I do a lot of set-ups everyday, so the big joke at the end of the day was the producers asking “Well, how many set-ups do you do today?” And I said “None”. “How much film did you shoot?” “We never turned over.” (laughs) They’d say, “You know, this is a low budget film! What’d you do all day?” “Well, we just rehearsed and lit and set the shot and we’re going to do the shot first thing tomorrow morning. When this shot is done, it’s going to be 8 and a half minutes of screen time!” Getting 8 and a half minutes of screen time in one day is not all that terrible! The producers kept asking me “Well, what if it doesn’t work?” I just told them, “Don’t worry about it. It’s going to work! I’ve seen it and it works.” The next morning we shot it, and the producers wanted the film day-lighted so we could see the dailes on it by the end of the day. We went on to shoot more stuff, this being the following day, but the first thing we did was the tracking shot. When we finished shooting that next day, we already had the dailes from the tracking shot, and everybody just sat there in awe looking at it.

It’s great. I watched it again recently, and even 30 years later, I’m in awe of it today!

Well, thank you. I love it and I love doing stuff like that. I don’t do a lot of that stuff today, because it’s so easy to do that kind of stuff today. I mean easy in terms of the technology of doing it. I’m looking for more difficult ways to do things.. (laughs) Using technology but in a whole new way… There’s a lot of shots like that in Poltergeist 3 that had that kind of complexity. Most wouldn’t notice them because they wouldn’t realize how complex some those shots were, which is the most successful way of doing it.

Oh, I’ll get to Poltergeist 3 in a minute! I love some of the stuff you did in that too. But going back, you had Donald Pleasence in ‘Death Line’ and of course, genre fans recognize him from the ‘Halloween’ series. I love that he has a short scene with Christopher Lee in your movie. How’d that come about, and what was it like in retrospect to have these two legendary actors sharing a scene together?

Well, you know, I was in my early 20’s when I made that film, and here I am in a room with one actor who’s been in more movies then my life allowed me to see… in total (laughs) and another actor who was the highest paid actor in the world at the time. Christopher. Christopher was doing it as a favor for (producer) Paul Maslansky. He came in for one day and worked at scale to do this movie for us.

And Donald just loved the script. I was in awe, because here I am with these two amazing actors. The biggest problem was only that Christopher was 6 ft 7 and Donald is 5 ft 6. And I had to put both of them in a one to one scene together. And Christopher refused to work on his knees (laughs) and Donald refused to work on a box.

So, I had to figure out how to put these guys nose to nose. That determined the way I shot it. In the beginning, Donald was the dominant character, so I started with close-ups of Donald and wide shots of Christopher. And as Christopher gained dominance in the scene, the camera kept moving closer in on him and further & further away from Donald. Until Christopher sat down they were never in a two shot.

I love that scene. That’s great!

It was fun and it was pretty amazing to work with the two of them. We had a great time and they were really great to me. They couldn’t be more polite and understanding of a young filmmaker. I remained in friendship with Donald until he passed away, and I still have a friendship with Christopher. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but we communicate. I have a very warm spot for those guys. They were real professionals.

Is the current unrated DVD version of ‘Raw Meat’ (out from MGM) your cut of the film?

The DVD that’s called ‘Raw Meat’ is NOT ‘Raw Meat’, but it is ‘DEATH LINE’. It is from the negative of my director’s cut from England. It’s from the original Technicolor negative. Frame for frame, it is ‘Death Line’ and not ‘Raw Meat’. And hopefully Sony who owns the MGM library now is going to re-release it, sometime in the next year AS ‘Death Line’. It’s being talked about it. It’s not definite yet, but Guillermo (Del Toro) and I have talked about doing a commentary together.

Wow. That’d be a great commentary track!

It would be. So… Sony if you’re listening out there! (laughs) Let’s get this show on the road! The fans deserve it.

It’s funny that you mention commentaries, because Blue Underground put out a great special edition DVD of ‘Dead & Buried’ a few years back, and I was actually just watching it with your commentary track. What was it like for you to re-visit that film, 20 years later for a special edition DVD? Especially considering the trouble you had during the making of it?

It was great. You know, when you have trouble with a production like we did on ‘Dead & Buried’… I’m so far away from it at this point, that I don’t have the emotion that I had back when it happened. And when I look back, I understand it was just business. And business is business and that’s the way it worked. I’m still VERY proud of ‘Dead & Buried’, even though I hate the added scenes. I don’t think the added scenes were necessary.

And also, you’ve got Stan Winston who during principle photography had done all the special effects. Then, for them to bring in some cheapo special effects guys to do the re-shot added scenes – that was just the worst part. The acid up the nose scene with the doctor looks so fake and phony. I just really hate it. The fisherman getting his face cut up was also an added scene.

How can you compare those effects to the burned head in the car or the needle in the eye or the reconstruction of the girl’s face? What Stan Winston did was great. Stan’s just a genius. Stan was working with Zoltan Elek who actually did the applications on the set. Zoltan, won the Oscar for ‘Mask’. We had these brilliant people, and this new production company just wanted more gore and brought in whomever for that other stuff. That I’m not happy about. (laughs)

Also, that they added red in the film, because if you listen to the commentary, you’ll know there was not supposed to be any red in the movie until Jack Albertson (Mr. Dobbs) starts to bleed, because he is the only one in the whole movie who’s actually alive. So, he was the only who could have blood. Once they put it the gory stuff, and changed things around, it ruined the flow. There are some continuity problems.

For example, the reconstruction girl, you see earlier in the film now before she’s actually killed. (laughs) ‘Dead & Buried’ is what it is, and even with all the messing around, it’s a film they couldn’t ruin. The Blue Underground DVD is amazing. David Gregory, who produced the DVD for Blue Underground was probably one of the best DVD producers I had the pleasure of working with. They really care about their movies.

You’ve worked with composer/musician Joe Renzetti on a number of your films, and I love the piano theme that opens ‘Dead & Buried’. Can you tell us a bit about your working relationship with him since he’s been involved with so many of your films?

Joe and I met back when he was a rock n’ roll musician. Joe had a very long and wonderful career and has worked with everybody. Joe’s an arranger. He worked on “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb. When Bobby Hebb did “Sunny”, Joe re-wrote the song in a session when he was the arranger. And it was a hit and now everyone in the world has heard of “Sunny” and Joe was a kid when he did that! He’s worked with lots and lots of musicians and won the Oscar for ‘The Buddy Holly Story’.

Joe and I had been friends and I just got back from England, where I had lived for 10 years and I was doing a movie for NBC that I was asked to do. It was a “big event”, which were television movies with 4 times the budget of a normal television movie and also with stars. I was doing this science-fiction thing for NBC and I told the producer that I wanted to use Joe Renzetti and the producer asked “Well, who’s Joe Renzetti?” And I said, “Well, he’s nominated for an Oscar.” And the producer said to me, “Well after the Oscar’s, he’ll just be some other schmuck that was nominated!” (laughs)

So, we were in the middle of shooting the night of the Oscars and we had a television on the set. So, I told everyone to call me when the music nominees were called, because this was one of my best friends and I wanted to see if he’d win or not. Low and behold, Dean Martin and Raquel Welsh announce the winner of the best score and it was Joe Renzetti. I turned to the producer and he said “Well, OK, he can do the movie.” (laughs) Actually, the producer on that television movie ended using him on a bunch of stuff afterwards. It was amazing. He’s a consummate musician. Him and I exchange thoughts and dialogue – we can talk in words instead of paragraphs. And we know how to talk music to each other. It’s always a great collaboration with him. He did ‘Dead & Buried’ and he did a great job on ‘Vice Squad’. He’s done all of my movies. And most of my television series. He’s at least supervised the music on my television series. He’s retired now, and he doesn’t really work with anyone else, but when I have something, he’ll usually do it. I would like his life, he lives on the most beautiful piece of land you’ve ever seen in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (laughs) and he just lives an amazing life out there.

It’s good to be a retired composer, I guess!

He’s got this amazing studio he built for himself and he pretty much does whatever he wants to do.

I was 12 when ‘Poltergeist 3’ came out, and although I wasn’t initially aware of the problems thru-out the production until much later on, I really, really enjoyed it. I have very fond memories of seeing it all the time on cable. How’d you get involved in that project and was it difficult or intimidating for you to write and direct the 3 rd movie knowing that you were following up two successful films?

First of all, I was approached to do Poltergeist 2 before Brian (Gibson). And for several reasons, I didn’t do it. I had just written a pilot for NBC, and the pilot got picked up for production and I had already committed to directing it. And also… I felt that the budget for 2 was a little over-inflated for what it needed to be. There were a lot of people involved in the production and there was a lot of money being spent on the production that wasn’t going to end up on the screen. And that’s always been a real major thing for me. When I make a movie, I want the money on the screen, I don’t want the money going into lining the pockets of all kinds of people, including myself. I think the idea is to take that money and give that money to your audience, and not keep that money for yourself. That’s the way I’ve always been with all my productions. So, anyway, it just didn’t work out when it came to Part 2.

‘Vice Squad’ had been out there already and it was a film that had gotten a lot of attention from other directors. I can’t tell you the number of director’s that contacted me after ‘Vice Squad’ and just started talking to me about what a significant film it was. It was really mind boggling for me, but also humbling to get calls from Walter Hill, and John Milius and Martin Scorcese. (laughs) John Milius had told me how he sat and watched it with Steven Speilberg and supposedly that’s how my name got brought up for Poltergeist 2. This is second hand information, but that’s what I’d heard. I wasn’t available for it, so it just didn’t work out, but when they decided to do ‘Poltergeist 3’, they came to me first before they went to anyone else and said, “Would you like to do Poltergeist 3 and would you like to produce it, write it and direct it?” The producer’s of ‘Death Line’ were at that time running MGM, and I had a long standing relationship with them, so I said OK.

I had just done ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive’ (with Rutger Hauer) and they loved it. So, that’s what I ended up doing. It started out to be a lot of fun to do ‘Poltergeist 3’ and I’d sold them on the idea that this was going to be the last film ever made that has no CGI in it. Not only no CGI, but I didn’t want any opticals in the movie. I wanted no film tricks at all. I told them I think I can do the whole movie as a magic show and do every effect live on camera.

I watch it and am baffled by the visual effects in the movie. Especially a lot of the tricks with the mirrors. Did you use pretty much everything you had learned on previous films about visual effects in ‘Poltergeist 3’?

I used not only what I learned from my films, but I have a masters in photography and I went to a technical school, so you had to take scientific courses as well, so I studied physics in college. Optics were always a big thing for me. Another thing, while working my way thru school, I not only did it by being a session musician, but I also got myself a job at an optical laboratory once I got interested in film and learned how to use a lot of techniques that we don’t use anymore.

All the tricks that were used to do special effects before CGI came along, which included manipulating film and using blue screen. I had a background in that and I loved doing that stuff, and my career in commercials was really based on special effects because I used to do all kinds of special effects commercials. I loved the idea of doing long tracking shots and really manipulating the camera. I brought all of those things together to do ‘Poltergeist 3’.

It was a film I was really excited about making until Heather (O’ Rourke) died. (Carol Anne) It’s the great unfinished film. I don’t think anything could be more significant to a director then the film that he lost a star on.

It must have been so difficult. I had read a bit of the backstory on the production, and I had read that you and a lot of the people involved in the film didn’t even want to complete it once Heather passed away.

I didn’t want to complete it at that point. I mean, I loved that little girl. She was just so special. If I could’ve adopted her, I would have. If she could’ve been my kid, I would have absolutely loved it. She was just an amazing person and the sweetest little thing you could believe. When she died, I was in shock. I was a pallbearer at her funeral and it was probably the worst day of my entire life. There was never a sadder moment in my life then that day. You know, it was hard. I didn’t care about the film anymore. The studio said let’s just bury the film. How can you release a film with a dead 12 year old in it anyways? I think it’s awful.

And we don’t have an ending. There’s no ending shot. At the beginning, everyone agreed with me that we shouldn’t try to finish the film. And then pressure from the board at MGM changed that. They pretty much said “You finish the film, or someone else will.” And I wasn’t about to throw my footage over to someone else.

So, I wrote that little bullshit scene that now ends the movie. And we shot that little 2 second scene with a double, and the camera going back up thru the window and the lightening striking the top of the building and… it’s just… a bullshit ending. I hate it. And the rest of the movie, even after we shot that ending, the film was too short. So, I had to go back in and stretch and use scenes in the film that I had NEVER intended on using.

There are scenes that I wrote because the studio felt I need to elaborate on certain things, and I knew those scenes would never end up in the finished films, and unfortunately they did, because I had to stretch the length of the film. I think I got 77 or 78 minutes out of the first cut and so, in order to bring it up to its delivery requirements, I had to just keep stretching. So, we stretched anywhere we could. Even on that 77 minute version, we had stretched the opening titles for as long as you could possibly bear to have the opening titles go.

For what it’s worth, I saw it at 12 and I loved it back then for the visuals and it left an impression on me. So, I hope that’s worth something! (laughs)

Well, thank you. (laughs) It’s my least favorite of all my movies. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it since I made it. I remember every frame of it, I don’t think I’ve seen it since it was released in the theater. I have the DVD but I’ve never watched it. I’ve let other people watch it, but I have not watched it. I don’t even know what the transfer on the DVD looks like. Mainly it’s an emotional thing. I can’t watch that film and think about directing Heather and losing her. It’s pretty awful to lose someone.

We lost Jack Albertson right after ‘Dead & Buried’ and Donald Pleasence is gone now. It’s kind of strange watching films of people who were your friends and knowing that they’re gone. But when there are pleasant memories connected to it, it’s a lot easier. Because of the fact of the way she died, it just was not pleasant.

It’s was a terrible tragedy.

It was. And I think she would’ve gone on to be a great director. Seriously. At 12 years old, she knew more about filmmaking then a lot of people that are out there making films today. That’s what she wanted to do. That was her goal. She was going to stop acting, because she wanted to direct. She wanted to go to film school. And I think the world lost a really good filmmaker.

I would assume that experience turned you off from filmmaking for a while?

Well, I had done ‘Lisa’ right after, which was another horror story. The making of ‘Lisa’ was THE worst production nightmare I’ve ever gone thru. And even after the productions of the film, the release of the picture was an even bigger nightmare. I don’t want to go into all, but it was horrible. I did one film where my star died and the next film where the studio died while I was making the film. So, there was no money to release the film once the film was finished. And they forced me into doing stuff that I didn’t want to do. I really felt like slave labor on that film. Because they had taken a project I was very close to and a script that I really loved and they turned it into a piece of shit. And then didn’t release it properly. And that’s really why I decided to take a hiatus. I had had my fill. Television had been very, very good to me over the years, so I just left the world of feature films and went back to producing television.

Gary, I’m so sorry! I feel like I should apologize to you!

(laughs) It’s ok!

You latest film is ‘39: A Film by Carroll McKane’. What was it about the original script ‘The Storm’ by Larry Brothers that re-sparked your interest into getting behind the camera again?

The reality of it. As I said earlier in this interview, I’ve always had a morbid fascination in serial killers. It was a thirst in me that I needed to fill. Because of my fears of that which had developed as a child. I’ve read every text on serial killers that I could get my hands on, non-fiction. I read medical books, and psychological books and met with criminologists. I’d met with forensic psychiatrists and people that had dealt with stuff in that area. I had read Larry’s script and it was just incredible. Absolutely incredible. The characters that he drew in the script, his portrayal on the psychiatrist… I read the script and said to myself I know this guy. I’ve talked to him, in person. This is a real person. And the script just pulled no punches.

The only thing was I didn’t like was the shape of the script. I loved the characters and the fact that Caroll had videotaped all his killings, I found fascinating. Larry’s a writer and a very good writer, but not a filmmaker and really didn’t have an understanding of what it would take Caroll to shoot the film about himself. The whole idea of doing that, of me just being able to help Caroll make this film about himself intrigued me – because Caroll became a very real person.

I needed to find an actor who could become Caroll, not who could play Caroll but who could become Caroll. And I could become his friend and help him make this movie. The idea of doing something that was this different in technique and took the technology of digital video and moved it to a place where the only way to make this film was to use digital technology, instead of using digital technology as an excuse for budget. Budget had nothing to do with the choice of doing this movie on DV. The only way this movie could be done and keep the reality of what this movie had to be was to shoot it on DV.

I’m a technophile. I’m a geek. (laughs) I love technology and even during my retirement, I never stopped my fascination with technology. I have every toy known to man that’s electronic. (laughs) It’s funny. My step-son’s girlfriend was just talking to me this morning about how when she walked into my office for the first time, it was night & she said it was just a mass of blinking lights. (laughs) She said, “I saw every electronic gadget known to man just sitting on a shelf blinking away in your office.” I just wanted to find a way of really making the film using nothing but new technology and using new technology to it’s utmost advatages. And using it in a way that it’s never been used before. That combined with telling a story that was as real as the story I had read in Larry’s script and putting that all together, to me… was the same as putting together to story of Sawney Bean and the London Underground to create ‘Death Line’. I took two elements and put them together in a way that they’d never been put together before to create ‘39’ and I became obsessed with the idea of doing it.

So, we did it. I wanted no stars in the movie. People that were totally unrecognizable because I felt that was also inherent in the film that I was making. I also knew that no studio would ever make the film. So, I set out to make my first independent picture. I’d never done an independent film before. All of my films are studio films. I was hired, and paid a lot of money and they’d give me everything that I needed and I’d make a movie. Myself, along with a few friends, including a friend of mine in the record business who wanted to get a taste of the film business, just got together and we made this movie happen.

You mentioned before that budget had nothing to do with your decision to shoot using the digital medium. But it seems that right now, the digital medium is so easily available to a lot of independent filmmakers. How do you feel as a filmmaker about the idea of more people being able to get their hands on equipment and tools to help them make their own films, rather then having a studio influence or get in their way?

I think it’s fantastic that filmmaking is now more of a democratic endeavor. There are a lot of people out there with talent, whom maybe never would’ve gotten a chance. The only thing that I caution young filmmakers with is… to learn filmmaking. LEARN IT. Just because you have a DV camera doesn’t make you a filmmaker. Just because you can load Final Cut into your laptop doesn’t make you a film editor. Learn about it. Study about the history of film. Watch movies. But really watch movies. Someone recently talked to me about framing and movement in a frame, and it reminded me of this guy who taught film history at the University of Chicago – he really influenced me. At that time we were watching prints on 16 mm, and he told me, “You know what? Load a film into the projector, and watch it upside down and backwards. And when you watch it upside down and backwards, you’ll learn about filmmaking.” And it’s really true. You watch it completely out of context, you’re watching an abstract image move across the frame and you start to see for yourself. Watch the great films that way. Orson Wells films or Sergei Eisenstein. Some of the great early filmmakers who really did some amazing things with visuals, you can learn from. And that’s what I think young filmmakers have to do, they have to learn. You can’t just call yourself a director, you have to learn how to do good exposures. You have to learn how to make pretty pictures. Take your digital still camera and go out and really make some beautiful pictures. Print them and look at them. And ask yourself what’s beautiful about this picture? What’s not beautiful about this picture? Then learn about art direction, learn about costuming, learn about wardrobe or props or colors. Learn about lenses. Most filmmakers know nothing about lenses. They don’t take the time to really figure out how lenses work. Because you just don’t pick a lens for the size it gives you, because you want a wide shot or you want a close-up. You can do a close-up with wide lens and you can do wide shot with a long lens depending on where you put the camera. Any filmmakers reading this, find out what the difference is in the way a lens sends light and what it does to light as it moves thru a lens. Figure out how you can help tell the story of the film that you’re shooting by what lens you put on the camera. I don’t think modern/young filmmakers take the time to learn this. They all use zoom lens and set it at whatever focal length they want the frame to be, and that’s just not how you use lens. I love filmmaking as an art. People ask me what kind of films I like? I like good films. I like good films that are made by creative filmmakers and I’ll watch films of any genre and I don’t care if the filmmaker is 19 years old or 90 years of, as long as the film does something for me, and I see a respect for the medium in the film. Now, I’ll get off my soapbox, what’s your next question. (laughs)

You’ve already screened ‘39’ a few times. How’s the reaction to the film been thus far and is it essentially the film you set out to make?

It is absolutely the film I set out to make. I will stand by ‘39’ & every frame of it. If the film is successful or if the film is a failure, I’m going to have to take the blame. Whatever it is, I’ll either stand up there and take the blame or take the credit. I produced it, I re-wrote Larry’s script, I directed it. Nobody had any influence on me whatsoever on any of the choices I made. They are my choices, I did them and I stand by them. The first public screening of the film was at the Fantastic Festival in Montreal, and the audience reaction was amazing.

Tony Timpone from Fangoria said he’d never seen people react like that. There was not a stir in the audience from the time the film started. People were basically shocked from the opening frame of the movie and they just sat there. Not one person walked out. Not one person got up to go to the bathroom. Nobody left the theater. And when the film ended and the titles came up – there’s no titles at the beginning of the film and the first title is the main title of the film and then directed by Gary Sherman, people started to applaud, but then there’s a soundtrack that comes in underneath and the audience just hushed and listened, because there’s a radio interview that goes on with the doctor during the end credits – the audience hushed and listened to the whole thing and it wasn’t really until the lights came up at the end of the titles that the audience applauded and reacted and said “Whoa”. They all sat there. Not one person got up when the house lights came on. They all sat there stunned.

Then, Tony walked up in front of the audience and introduced me, and I had this wonderful round of applause and came up to do a Q & A, and of the full theater, about 4 people wandered out during the Q & A out of the whole audience. Usually you lose half the audience during the Q & A, but everyone stayed. I got mobbed afterwards, even after the Q & A. I think people just wanted to talk about the film. They were trying to digest themselves of the experience that they just had. People react pretty amazingly to the film. I don’t know anyone who’s had a casual reaction to it yet. Have you seen it yet?

Not yet, but I know it’s playing in New York at the Two Boots on August 7 th. Are you going to be there for that screening?

Yea, I am.

I’ll see you there!

I can’t wait. I’ve sat thru a few screenings now. The New York one will be the first public screening in the United States and then we’re started to get invited into a lot of film festivals, so I don’t know exactly where we’re going to be, but it looks like we’re going to be at a lot of the major horror and fantasy film festivals. You can check out website. We TRY to keep it updated. (laughs) We’ve gotten a few reviews back so far that we’ve posted on the website and I’m very happy. People seem to understand the movie. People are getting the experience that I wanted to give them with the film.

I know you mentioned in a recent interview that you’re working on a new script for ‘Death Line’. As I said before, a lot of films have taken the basic premise from your film and gone in different directions with it. A recent one that comes to mind is the UK flick ‘CREEP’ by Christopher Smith. How are you re-approaching the story that you initially came up with 30 years ago?

The script is done and it’s getting a great reaction from the studios. A major agency has asked for the full package to represent the film. I can’t say who just yet, because it’s not a done deal yet, but let’s just say it’s the biggest agency in LA. (laughs) I don’t know what’s going to happen with it just yet, but what I did… I did NOT re-write the original ‘Death Line’. I stayed as far away from that as possible.

I just thought about what if I came up with the idea of putting Sawney Bean in a subway system today. How would I approach that? And that’s exactly what I did, and it’s a completely new, modern approach to the whole thing. It is not a film that could have been made in 1972. It’s a film that only could’ve been made in 2006-2007. It’s very modern. It’s incredibly modern, I actually surprised myself. The script feels like it was written by a 30 year old filmmaker as opposed to an old fart like me. (laughs)

Does it still take place in London or is it a different setting?

No, it takes place in Chicago. It takes place in the subway system of Chicago. Even though Chicago subway system is not nearly as extensive as London. The subway system itself is not as old (as London), but under the city of Chicago is a series of freight tunnels running miles and miles and miles exceeding the length of any subway system. And these were built as freight tunnels during the reconstruction of Chicago after the Chicago Fire beginning in the 1880’s. The fire was in 1871 and they started to reconstruct the entire city. And in the 1880’s, someone came up with the idea of building an underground freight system. The tunnels are only 7 and a half feet in diameter, and the tunnel system is extensive. It was done illegally, and these people were building tunnels illegally and unsafely. Lots of people were killed, much more then even the building of the London Underground. I went into that, and basically, (the new script) has to do with the freight system which has been closed down for years, it’s been closed and completely disused for 50-60 years. But it connects to the existing subway system which was build (I think) back in the 30’s. The freight system was already old when they started building the subway system. And the backstory builds between the two. So, it’s become very, very plausible and very real. That’s what it is. It’s a very different story and it’s still unlike a lot of the rip-offs of the original ‘Death Line’, which are basically horror stories that don’t have anything beyond that. The new ‘Death Line’ is just as political and just as socially significant as the original one was. Originally, I did the original ‘Death Line’ as a protest film. (laughs) It’s very political. It talks about classes. That’s really what the film was meant to do, which was hide a social message behind a horror story and the new one I think does it better. It really deals with social ills of today.

Would you want to direct it yourself?

They want me to direct it. And I’m thinking about it. I almost think that I don’t want it made unless I do direct it. And I’m in that position where I can say “Let’s not make this” because I do have ownership in ‘Death Line’. It’s the only one of my films that I have ownership with, besides ‘39’ which I own completely.

Well, I hope YOU get to direct. BUT if there was anyone else? I’d vote for Guillermo Del Toro!

(huge laughs) I’m not sure Guillermo even wants ME to do it! Let alone him! He keeps saying to me (in Guillermo voice) “How can you improve upon perfection!?” (laughs) Actually, yesterday he asked me if I’d send him the script. He’s still mad about it, but he says he at least wants to read the script. Then he’ll decide. I told him “You’re not my agent, you’re not my manager, Guillermo!” (laughs) I love Guillermo.

Thank you so, so much for talking with us, Gary!



Special Thanks to Tony Timpone!!!
Visit:
www.39themovie.com

Check out these other GREAT interviews with Gary Sherman:

TWITCH interview with Gary Sherman
JoBlo interview with Gary Sherman
Bloody-Disgusting interview with Gary Sherman


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