Quantcast ICONS Interview with Gunnar Hansen Leatherface from The Original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

Gunnar Hansen!!!

Over 35 years ago, outside of Austin, Texas, a group of filmmakers and actors accomplished something remarkable. With a shoestring budget, little in the way of experience, and conditions that were almost unbearable, they all combined their various talents to create "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". Gunnar Hansen, fresh out of school with a Masters Degree in English, was chosen to perform the unforgettable role of "Leatherface", one of horrors most frightening, disturbing, fascinating, and enduring characters.

Gunnar was able to take the time to talk with us about the legacy of "Texas Chainsaw", as well as his role in the upcoming satire of independant horror "Brutal Massacre", and offer us a look into the world of indie horror, and give us his insight into who we are as horror fans, and why "Texas Chainsaw" continues to intrigue both filmmakers and fans alike. - By Mike C. - 3/08

What's the earliest horror film you can remember?

Well, the first horror movie I can remember was Frankenstein. I lived in a small town and the movie theater, in the next town over, was all second run and so I was at the movies with my family and they had previews for “Frankenstein”, and it terrified me. Just the previews! I think the scene where the woman is at the makeup mirror and Frankenstein is at the window, and every time the lightening flash it would project his shadow on the wall and she didn't see it, that really got me scared. So that's the earliest I can remember and after that it was really—Well, on Friday nights down in Texas there was what was called The Shock Theater, it was a TV show, a horror movie show, or as we said it in Texas, “Shock The-ear-ter”.. It just showed really wonderfully bad horror movies like “The Crawling Eye”, “The Deadly Mantis” and “Them”. Of course, I loved Them”, it was wonderfully scary. I love that movie.
Growing up in Texas were there ever any scary horror legends that they would tell, or anything they used to do to scare you?

Oh no, no. Not at all. I was in the Boy Scouts, but that was in Maine. I remember we were camping in the woods and the Scoutmaster once told us some scary stories of the wild man in the woods and things like that, but no, as a kid I don't remember any.

The first film of yours I wanted to talk about was your most recent one, “Brutal Massacre” from Stevan Mena. How did you get to know Stevan? Also I heard you were a very big supporter of his first film “Malevolence”. How did that come to your attention?
I don't remember, I think it was through a mutual friend... No, no, I met him and he asked me to take a look at his movie so he sent me a copy. I really liked it. I thought it really had a few things that you weren't seeing in the latest crop of horror movies. It had that real 70's feel to it, versus that super-slick stuff that was being produced that didn't have much scare to it. They were screening it down in Massachusetts and he asked me to come down, so I did, and he introduced me at the screening and I said a couple things about why I liked it and that got us in contact.

So how soon after that did he start talking to you about a role in one of his films?

Pretty soon after that because by the time “Malevolence” was out, released on video, we were talking. I think I was down in New York for something, and we had lunch, coffee out in Long Island, and he talked about the next project which he thought would be the sequel to “Malevolence”. We talked about the possibility of my being involved with that. Then I was surprised when he called me for this [Brutal Massacre] because I didn't know it was in the works and that he was interested in comedy or would think of me for comedy.
Yea, it came as a surprise to us too when Stevan announced he'd wrapped on a film and it was a comedy. What was it like doing comedy? I don't think we've ever seen you in a straight-up comedy before.

I really loved it. I'd done a little bit of comedy before in a film called “Next Victim”, which unfortunately has had problems and not been released. It was an anthology film and I did the wraparound story. It was my first chance to do a comic role and I really enjoyed so when he told me it was a comedy I thought it would be great to do.

What did you think of the character Krenshaw?

Well, I guess it might be...I don't know if I could say, but I could identify with him. [laughs]


Well, I know people like this. I hope I'm not like him, but he was very real to me, I've met people like this before. So what I really had to do was work on how he might be dressed, what was his manner, and how did he speak. In fact I had created such a caricature of him that at the first rehearsal Stevan said I might have to bring him down. [laughs]

It's interesting with Stevan doing comedy, and you doing comedy, and actually, the whole cast that was involved, because I don't think we've seen them do comedy before-but it all works very well, “Brutal Massacre” is very funny. What do you think it was that really got everybody to work so well?

Well that's hard to know, that's like asking me “Why was “Chainsaw Massacre” so good?”. Well, it read funny, the script was funny, so my expectation was that the film would be funny. I mean certainly everybody was really good at it, I mean, David Naughton was just dead-on and dead-pan. There was nothing broad about the way he does it. And Ken Foree, his character was just absolutely hilarious and sad. I don't know what it was. I was going to say it was great conditions on the set, but actually, we froze to death! I don't know, everybody worked hard, everybody was in a good mood. There was no tension on the set, it felt like the shooting just moved through very smoothly, and in my limited experience with comedy, I think that's really important.

Now you've spent an entire career in independent horror, which is what “Brutal Massacre” is about, how true to the making of a low budget horror movie does “Brutal Massacre” come?
Um....I suspect it's quite accurate, in fact...the one place I thought they underplayed was with the financing. They could have made a whole movie about financing and the kind of difficulties you go through and the kind of interference you get from producers and money people. I’ve worked on films that could have fit beautifully in the film. For example, a producer who showed up on set, while we're getting into makeup, with a singer who he wants to sing in the movie and who wanted the trailer because he was going to record her.

I've never been in a situation quite like in the movie, where someone like Krensaw showed up and really screwed things up, but I don't doubt for a second that it has happened.

Was there any film you worked that on that sort of reminded you of “Brutal Massacre” on any other film you worked on that might be similar to events that happen in this movie?
Well it’s hard because most movies I come in, shoot for a day or two, and I'm gone. So a lot of the dynamics I don't see. So I think...maybe “Murder-Set-Pieces” might qualify a bit. I know he [director Nick Palumbo] had a lot of problems. Well, “Chainsaw Sally”, there were times when I think he [director Jimmyo Burrill] was very frustrated with things that were going on. I know there were investors in that movie who were absolute dreams, but there are investors who make it a real challenge to make a film.
So...who would be the director who was most like Harry Pendereki?

That would be really difficult and it would be...unfair...to name such a person.

Well, Harry is a very passionate person...

Well, Harry is not a buffoon. He's well intentioned, he's done a good film before, he just makes all these mistakes. It sounds like Tobe Hooper [laughs] Ok, that was a joke...

Another interesting thing about “Brutal Massacre” is it features a lot of guys that you've maybe shared a room or table space with at the horror conventions over the years. What was it like finally getting to work with these guys?

Well I thought it was really fun. The sad part is that I know Ken very well and then we were never there at the same time, which was too bad because I would have loved to have worked with Ken directly. But certainly working with David Naughton such as I did was a thrill for me because I loved “American Werewolf”. Ellen Sandwiess and the others from “Evil Dead” were great because that's another movie I really enjoy. David and I didn't know each other very well, but we had been at a couple conventions so we'd talked and of course, the “Evil Dead” ladies, I knew them a little better because I'd seen them at shows and gone over to their table. It's fun when you have known people because it makes the work a lot easier if nothing else. These are already people I like so that makes it fun to work, but also if you know them then working with them is easier, you know what to expect. And I think David is just an unrecognized comic actor.
Yes, he’s really, really good at this. I can't say I was surprised, he's been very funny before, but I don't think he's had a role like this in a really long time. Now, I looked at your IMDB profile and you've done a lot of these smaller films. Anything else that sticks out that you've enjoyed working on?

It's really funny because it's been accelerating. I didn't do any film work at all again until '87, I just turned everything down, I wasn't interested. But yes, a film that I worked on that was just a great pleasure to work on was “Apocalypse and the Beauty Queen”. It was difficult shooting in that it was shot outside of St. Louis, largely in an unheated building in February, beginning of March, but that was a movie I really enjoyed working on. (Of course that was the movie where the producer showed up with the singer...)

Oh wow...
But I really enjoyed it. Here was a movie where the crew was great, and I really had a part that was of some significance. I mean usually I'm asked to come in and shoot a day and them I'm out, and because of that I don't get a lot of interaction. But “Apocalypse” was great just because I was there for an extended time and really got a chance to work on the film, and get to know the crew and other actors. That was also a film I was pleased with and it wasn't a horror movie. It was nice to work on a film where I was asked to play a dramatic role, you know, versus a killer. You know I started out playing the killer, then I was playing the killer's dad, then the killer's grandfather, and it was nice to do something outside of the genre.
What got them interested in you for the dramatic role?

I don't know what it was, I don't know why they approached me. I mean, I'm grateful. Well, the guy, Jim Shulte who was the writer, I had met him years ago. He was the person who made the contact, so I suspect Jim said “you should hire Gunnar”. I think it must have been Jim's doing more than anything else.

If I can ask, because I know this is one film that generated a lot of controversy, and that would be “Murder-Set-Pieces”. We actually interviewed the director, and the film was a big nightmare for him. What was your experience on that? You did a small role in it...

What I really liked about that was, even though I had a small part, boy was that guy real to me. He was written in a way that was convincing, so I really enjoyed playing the Nazi mechanic. I can see why it was so difficult to shoot. I think that the subject matter is extremely controversial to shoot, and you have to try to shoot it without permits. There was the scene where a young girl dies, you know, and doing it in a public park. How do you get away with that? If I recall there was tension between the director and the DP in the scene that I was shooting, which was too bad because it created a time problem.
We were shooting in that sort of “golden light”, and stuff wasn't getting shot fast enough because there was some disagreement between the two of them. It was too bad. The effects guys on “MSP” were great, they were the Toe Tag guys. I think it's just a shame that they worked so hard and then for the release version so much of their work was cut out of the film because it was too extreme.

What about Nick, because he took a lot of heat for that movie. He took a lot of heat before that movie even came out. What can you say about him?

He's fine. He was always easy to work with, I'd know him on and off because he'd approached me years ago about taking a look at one of his films. We'd been in contact on and off when he was interested in doing a film called “Sinister”, which I went down to New York and shot a trailer for. He's a nice guy, it's unfortunate he takes this heat because... If you talk about Nazism, does that make you a Nazi? No. And they think he's a misogynist because he made this movie about violence against women and to me that's just primitive thinking on people's part. I mean, can you not separate the message from the messenger? Apparently not. I think it's really unfortunate that people have given him so much heat for making this film. If anything it should have generated discussion about films like this, but apparently, from his reports to me, people are talking about what a sick character he is, and when you meet him he's normal.
Yea, really, he's a nice guy. We sat down for an hour with him and shot an interview to let him give his side of the story. Why do you think people who follow horror movies and who love horror movies reacted so strongly to that film, in such a negative way?

Well, is that the people who were reacting?

Well...there'd been a blackout from certain horror publications...We're not here to glorify violence, but the movie isn't about that.

That's one of the arguments that drives me crazy when people start banging on horror movies. They talk about being irresponsible and my answer is: Don't talk about irresponsibility with horror movies because horror movies show you the consequence of violence. I don't know what it is. The thing about horror movies is that don't get broken, and one of those is that anyone who is pre-pubescent is never in danger. For example, in the movie “The Gate”, which is a very suburban horror movie the kids disappear one by one, and they're all 11-12 years old. But as soon as the first one is supposedly killed I lost interest in the movie because I realized they couldn't be killed, because it broke the rules. I knew nothing was going to happen to them.

Well, in this movie the little girl isn't safe and she does get murdered, and I think right there is a big trigger that they get upset about. The other thing is it may have shoved in peoples faces the one thing they like about horror movies and its hard for them to face. And I don't want to characterize all horror movies this way, but a certain characteristic in horror is they have a strong sexual content. A lot of horror movies in the 70's and 80's were sexual cautionary tales where the more promiscuous you are the sooner and more horrible you die. There's this insertion of sex and voyeurism with violence. What he does is put it to the extreme, and put it in your face. And if you're a person who thinks that's titillating then I think it's a little bit horrifying to have it really, really made clear to you, in the extreme, what you're doing. Maybe that's what it is. People are frightening by what they see because they're looking at themselves.

Ok...so, let's ask you. When you're not working on films what do you do?

Sit at home and watch television.....


Oh [laughs] you mean in reality? Well, I do a lot of writing. Writing has always been my primary line of work. So after “Chain Saw Massacre” I did this movie “Demon Lover”, which was this really bad film directed by an incompetent director Don Jackson, that I never got paid for. I just thought, “This is insane, why am I involved in the film business?”. So I turned everything down. I was work as a magazine writer. I also did whatever writing came along. I did a church history, I wrote advertising, whatever it took. Then in '87 when I got back into films, when I did “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers”, I made a shift and I started writing different things. I did some screen writing, I've written some documentary films, some of them I also produced. I don't do any magazine writing anymore. Right now I'm working on a script, a drama, which I hope to take out to LA and start pitching in the spring.

How did Fred Olen Ray get you out of acting retirement for “Chainsaw Hookers”?

Well that goes back to “Demon Lover”. When I did Demon Lover, Fred was a friend of Don Jackson, and I met Fred out in Michigan when we did film. I hadn't heard from him for a while and out of the blue I get a letter from him asking if I'd be interested in coming out to LA and doing a movie. So I called him and my first reaction was, “no, I'm not going to do this”. Then I thought, well, why am I saying no? So I called him and we talked about it and went out there and shot the film. It was a whirlwind, it was great. I flew out, I got to LA on a Friday night, got to his house at one in the morning, got up at 6am and started shooting. And I hadn't read the script.


Well, I told him that I couldn't really agree to do the film if I had read the script and he sort of hemmed and hawed and then said, “Well it's in re-writes”. And I took that to mean that there was no script and he wasn't going bother to write it, you know because the chainsaw gag only works if I'm in the film, and he wasn't going to write it if I wasn't going to be there. So what I said was I'll come out and read the script when I get to town and if it is what you say it is then I'll sign the contract. So I stayed at his house, got the script, read it that night, got up, signed the contract, and started shooting. I had no rehearsal time, but, you know, that doesn't matter with Fred. [laughs]. We just went on set. It's just a funny experience, because at the beginning he would say things like “Ok, stand in the window and look menacing.” And I'd do that. Then he'd say, “Ok, stand in the window and look angry.” Well...it's all the same expression! Then he'd say, “Ok, in this scene you're going to walk in and here's your line...”. Well, I had absolutely no sense of the character at all. By the 3rd day of shooting I was finally caught up enough that I knew my lines ahead of time. But we shot that movie really fast. He shot that in 7 days.

Get out...
Yes, what he did was have me come out on Memorial Day weekend. We shot my stuff Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I took the red eye home, and he shot for the next two weekends. And the reason he did it that way was because he had been called by some producer to save a movie that had been shot and edited but didn't work. They wanted him to come in and shoot some additional footage and recut the film, and it was on 35mm. So, one of the conditions of doing this was that he could have the equipment, the cameras and the lights, on the weekend when they weren't shooting. So he had these three weekends to shoot the film because he didn't have to pay for the equipment.

Well, he does so many films, he must work fast...

He's so funny because he told me he was shooting one movie and they had a scientific lab, a set. So they finished shooting at something like 8:00 at night and the crew was coming in at 8am to break the set down. He thought, “Well, I have 12 hours”, so he called Aldo Ray and said, “I'll give you a $1000 if you come down and shoot all night long”. So while Aldo is driving over there, Fred is writing dialogue, and he said he didn't even know what the film was going to be, no idea what he would use this in, so he just wrote some generic dialogue that he could put into any movie.


But that's Fred...

And every film...a classic. But seriously, “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” does have it's cult following, mainly because of the Virgin Dance of the Double Chainsaws.

Oh yes, and I tried to deliver that line like I was Ed Sullivan [laughs]. It's funny because there's this guy Danny Peary who wrote this movie on cult movies, and I picked this book and I looked at the entry for “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” and it said something like, “When you see Gunnar Hansen's acting in “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” you'll see why they refused to give him a speaking part in “Chainsaw Massacre”.

I was so insulted that I put the book down.

Well, you did fine, for a movie that was shot in seven days that you didn't even have a script for.

Also, that's the film where I met Linnea Quigley.

Did you work with her on any of the films you've done over the years.

No, but I see her at the shows though.
Ok...now...what can we ask you about “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” that you haven't heard before? I guess, you know that movie has come out on DVD about 5 times over the last few years...

I was just looking at my bookshelf over the desk and I've got 1..2..3...4..5..6..7 different boxes of it. I've got an English version, a Swedish version, a German version. It just keeps being re-released, but I think after this metal box set, the Dark Sky box, I don't see how they could ever out do it.

They almost all have great making-of features, and there have been so many making-of features made about “Texas Chain Saw”. What do you think has people so fascinated about the making of this movie?

Well they want to know what happened, they're trying to figure out how this movie turned into what it did. I always think it's a happy accident. A movie is more than the sum of its parts. You couldn't have had this movie without Tobe Hooper, but it couldn't have been this movie without the actors, without the dedicated and extremely talented crew, and it couldn't have been the movie it is without the miserable conditions we shot it in. There are people who would like the world to believe they are the reason this movie is what it is, but I don't believe that. It's all of those things coming together. I think all of us were a little surprised when we saw what came out of it.

You think it was all just a very serendipitous experience for everyone?

Yes but I don't mean that it was a bunch of clowns that got together and said, “Let's make a movie, Andy”. Everybody there was dedicated to what they were doing. It was the first time I'd been in a situation where everybody was really good at what they did and everybody was giving their best. I was fresh out of graduate school when people are mostly just screwing off, you know, and so suddenly to be working in an environment where everyone was doing their job well, and they all knew what they were about was a thrilling experience.
There was an enormous amount of talent that went into the making of that movie. I don't mean to make light of that at all, but it was a combination of all those talents in some sort of accidental way with the way, and the conditions of how this movie was shot. I didn't know what we were going to get because I'd never worked on a film beside being in a student film.

When did you realize, “We made something.”
I think it was a year after the filming ending, when they were getting ready to release the film. There was a press party in Dallas, and so they flew me out for the day and as part of that they screened 10 minutes of it, and...I was amazed at my reaction, which was that my heart was racing. Even though I knew what was going to happen, there was no surprise for me in the scene they showed but my heart was racing because everything was timed so well. Everything was so beautifully paced, and it looked so good. It wasn't a pretty movie, but it looked so right. That was the first time I realized we had something. Then once the movie was released it was pretty clear. I went with a friend of mine to show her the location where we were filming.
We were standing on Quickhill Road, which is north of Austin, and on one side was the Chainsaw Massacre house, and on the other side was the Franklin house. We were standing there by a fence looking at the Franklin house and this carload of teenage boys pulls up and they come walking up to look at the house and one of them turns to us and says, “That's where they made that movie!” That's when I knew, that if these kids were going to make a pilgrimage to see where we made it and they referred to it as “that movie”, you know, that means they assume everybody knows. The wonderful thing was all this indignant reaction, I just loved that, you know like Johnny Carson getting up on his high horse.

Carson had something to say about it?

Oh, Johnny Carson was outraged, it was wonderful. He stood up and ranted angrily about how dare they give a movie like “Chain Saw Massacre” and “R” rating, that it should have been an “X”. The Philadelphia Enquirer ran two full page stories about how angry the audiences were at “Chain Saw”, that they were throwing up in the theater and demanding their money back. Then right in the middle of all that Rex Reed wrote a review that said it was the scariest movie he'd ever seen. So all these things came together. And that's what started me on this irritation of the self-righteous, people who think that horror movies are evil.
Why do you think that reaction came about for this movie? People always say that you look back and its not graphically violent...

It's not graphically violent but it's extremely violent emotionally, and it's a brutal movie to get through because it's so exhausting. It's so visceral and you really feel what's going on. I think that's the reaction to it.
People get on me about this but not very long after “Chain Saw” came out, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out. A movie aimed at kids and it was much more graphically violent than “Chain Saw” . But it was a big-budget movie, it was slick, and it was mainstream so nobody is going to complain about how frightening or gory it might be. Now I wasn't offended by the movie, I enjoyed it tremendously, but what offends me is people won't raise a peep about a movie like that. It doesn't occur to them to complain. It's very easy with a movie like “Chain Saw” to complain because there's no money behind it, you're not offending the industry and it's counter-cultural because it's message is threatening. With “Raiders”, the message that confirms everyones everyday values, whereas “Chain Saw” doesn't say that. “Chain Saw” says evil is brutal and in the world it is unpunished.
Was it the timing too? I saw this great documentary “American Nightmare” that tried to explain the climate, the post-Vietnam era?

[Laughing] Well maybe, but you have to be a little careful. As a former academic, let me say that academics love, after the fact, to tell you what something was about. And I hear people say “Chain Saw” is about the collapse of the American family, or it's really about Vietnam. And my answer is: No. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is about “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”.

There is always a subtext, and there are many subtexts, but the movie is about itself. I don't think anybody was thinking, “Let's make a movie about the collapse of the American family”. At the same time I think you're right when you say it came out of it's time.
During the film I had the chance to sit down with Tobe. I remember one long conversation with Tobe and Kim Henkel and I asked them, “Where did you come up with this?”. And Tobe said, “Well, there's this guy, Ed Gein, in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Ed inspired the idea of the mask and the bone furniture. Everything else...we made up.” So there goes the story that this was about Ed Gein.
He said, “What we did was sit down and make a list of everything in horror movies that scared us and we wanted to get everyone of them in the movie.”

Now in that statement there's no, “We wanted to get everything scary in the movie while we talked about the collapse of the American family”. But obviously the film resonates with people. I mean, this is 35 years after we filmed this...
And it still comes up...

Yes. People are still taking about it. So obviously it affects people, and it affects them in the sense that it must push some buttons. I think what it is that it's so realistic, psychologically realistic, that it does something to people's fears. It triggers a fear. It comes home for people when they watch this movie and all these years later it still does that to people.

What's it been like to live with the legacy of it all these years?

It's something I never expected. My hope for the movie was that a few years down the road a few hardcore horror fans would remember it. If that were the case, to me, it would be a wonderful success. I've never been interested in a lot of attention, I'm very shy, and I never thought of myself as having a public identity, because that's just so far away from who I was. So it's been a big surprise, and very enjoyable. It's almost a perfect sort of circumstance because as famous as “TCM” is, it's famous only in a certain way, and you never see my face in it. So nobody knows who I am. I mean, if I'm around horror fans they know, but I walk down the street and nobody recognizes my face. They might know my name, but I'm anonymous most of the time and I can be un-anonymous when I go to a convention. And I've had enough of this taste of it to realize how difficult it must be for people who are in actually famous, or famous in the real world. I always thought maybe my gravestone would say, “Gunnar Hansen: Nobel Prize for Literature”, but it's gonna say, “Gunner Hansen: He Had His Own Action Figure”!

Other TEXAS CHAINSAW Interviews!
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