Thursday, October 27, 2016


John McNaughton is best known as the director of two very different films: the unforgettably disturbing and brilliant HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986), and the irresistibly entertaining erotic thriller WILD THINGS (1998). McNaughton has always shown a diversity and breadth to his filmmaking. Amongst his films are the comedy drama MAD DOG AND GLORY (1993) featuring Robert De Niro and Bill Murray playing against type as a sensitive cop and tough mobster respectively; sci-fi horror THE BORROWER (1991); crime drama NORMAL LIFE (1996); Eric Bogosian stand-up concert movie SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL (1991); romantic comedy SPEAKING OF SEX (2001), and horror thriller THE HARVEST (2013) with Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton. McNaughton has also excelled on TV with films like GIRLS IN PRISON (1994) and LANSKY (1999), and shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, Without a Trace, and Masters of Horror. In the second part of a three-part interview, I spoke with McNaughton about making MAD DOG AND GLORY and WILD THINGS, the challenges of filming SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL, and his experiences directing for TV (including the Sam Fuller-scripted GIRLS IN PRISON)  

Part one of the interview.        

Did you feel pressured to do another horror movie after HENRY? 
Yes, I did do another horror movie, THE BORROWER. I had no choice really. I got every bad horror movie script in Hollywood, believe me, but that was a good script. 

How did you come to direct MAD DOG AND GLORY for Scorsese? 
From the time I saw MEAN STREETS (1973), Scorsese was always my favorite filmmaker, and I had heard he had optioned the Jim Thompson book The Grifters (1963) and was going to produce it. I was a huge Jim Thompson fan and I kept saying to my agent Scott Yoselow in New York, ''Send him HENRY, Send him HENRY. '' So he sent it to Scorsese's office and it got as far as his assistant, who after she saw the film called him back and basically said something to the tune of ''How dare you send me something like this?'' She was just appalled. And that was that. Stephen Frears got the assignment and did a very nice job. Well, that assistant finally moved on and Scorsese got a new assistant named Melanie Friesen, who somehow came across HENRY and loved it, and when she showed it to Scorsese, he loved it too. They called me up and sent me this script called MAD DOG AND GLORY. 

I bet that was an amazing call to take. 
I was sitting there and I get this call. The lady on the other end says ''Hi . I'm Melanie Friesen. I work for Martin Scorsese. He saw your film and loved it. Will you be there in ten minutes if he calls you back?'' You never know what's going to happen in life. I figured that everything that was bad had happened and I had survived it with some level of magnanimity, so when something incredibly good happened I was like ''Don't get too excited. '' I probably should have been a lot more euphoric and grateful. I thought this was the balance for all the negative. 

Did you immediately feel that this project was in your wheelhouse? It required such a delicate balancing of tones. 
Well, it was character and I can do character. It came to the day when it was ''Who's going to be in the movie?'' And it was Robert De Niro and Bill Murray with Scorsese producing. It was numbing in a way. Was I afraid? Of course I was afraid, but what was I going to do? Not do it? You just put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best, and hope a safe doesn't fall on your head while you're in the middle of a scene! 

What was the experience of working on the film like? 
If there was an asshole in that process, you're speaking to him at the moment. I was young and full of myself and probably a little cocky and arrogant. Scorsese couldn't have been kinder or more generous. Bob De Niro was just a pleasure to work with every day. I got along with Bill Murray quite well. Uma Thurman was lovely. I hate to leave her out and she was indeed lovely to behold and to work with. Robby Muller was a pain in the ass and I'll leave it at that. He's a great cinematographer and he did a great job, but he was a miserable person to work with. Aside from him, everyone was pretty cool.

Like most of the films I make, once the people who funded them see them, they're not sure what they are, and they just sort of get nervous and don't know how to market them. Six months after the film came out, Tom Pollack, the head of Universal, told The Hollywood Reporter that the guy who was in charge of the marketing department was fired for incompetence. Nobody puts that in print unless the guy was a trainwreck. Normally it's ''He wants to spend more time with his family. '' So the film wasn't a supremely huge hit but the reviews were good. The problem was that nobody could really get a handle on whether the film was a cop movie, a buddy movie or a romance. It was all those things, but at the same time, not really. 

How do you feel about the ending that was decided upon? 
Originally, De Niro took one punch at Bill Murray and didn't knock him down or knock him out, but at that point Murray's character has an epiphany – ''I'm the CEO. What am I doing scuffling in the street with this idiot?'' That caused him to say ''I'm out of here. This is stupid. '' When we tested the film with that ending, the audience wanted to see the RAGING BULL get his revenge, and I can't say I blame them. It was more emotionally satisfying. We reshot the fight and I still like it. I like the crane shot that goes up the building and shows you the city of Chicago over the top of the roof. After the fight, we first had De Niro and Uma Thurman going upstairs and he dances for her. It was one of those things. On paper it was great but on the screen it didn't work. So we all went back and forth and the ending is what we came up with. To me, it is what it is. They go upstairs and you don't know what happens to them. We did have another ending, but we never shot it. It was where Uma Thurman gets on a bus and goes home, and De Niro goes back to his apartment alone.

It's hard to come up with a good ending. Years ago I used to read a lot of scripts, more than I do today, and you occasionally would find one that was really good, but a lot of the first-time writers would take a good story, take it all the way, and then just kill everybody at the end. It was emblematic of the time. Originally, THE HARVEST ended before the baseball scene. They are sitting there on the creek and she says ''Are they gone yet?'' And little Natasha says ''I think so. '' The End. I felt that we had spent all this time with these two great kids and you wanted something less bleak. I call it the Fake Happy Ending because he's playing ball, but where did he go? Back to his family? He's been gone for twelve years. But I felt the audience was owed something. When you're very young, you can just have an ending where everybody dies, and Fuck You, The End. But it's like spitting at your audience. I went to see Iggy Pop in concert and he spat at the audience, and it was cool. But I was young then! 

Was it a learning experience making MAD DOG AND GLORY? 
Oh yeah. I learned how to work with a crew of the highest calibre and have that level a budget, and I learned how to treat movie stars when you're working with them. 

You've worked in a variety of different genres. Does this stem from restlessness at all? 
I'm not restless now, but I was before THE HARVEST, not having made a film for many years. If a story attracts me, I am interested. I also don't like to get pinned down. I worked on the Masters of Horror for Showtime, and there were a lot of really good directors that worked on that show. We'd have these dinners and you sort of come to realise that the horror genre can become a terrible ghetto where you can't get out, if you're not careful. 

How did you come to direct the Eric Bogosian stand-up movie SEX, DRUGS, ROCK AND ROLL? 
MAD DOG AND GLORY was originally going to be shot in New York, and I was there prepping the movie with my producing partner Steve Jones. Already I have Scorsese producing, and the script is by Richard Price, and is amazingly written. Scorsese calls me up and says ''Listen, Bob De Niro has read this script and he really likes it. I'm not trying to push you or anything but do you think you'd like to meet him?'' He was so polite about it. So we had a meeting in Scorsese's office in the Brill Building. It was me, Scorsese and De Niro. They told me another actor was coming along who might be interested in playing opposite Bob. Bob wasn't sure which part he was going to play – the cop or the gangster. There's a knock on the door and in walks Al Pacino. So I'm now sitting there with Scorsese, Bob De Niro and Al Pacino, having a grand old time, just cracking jokes, and talking about this, that and the other thing, and there's another knock at the door. And who else could it be but George Lucas? He just dropped in because he was in New York. So he joins in and we all start talking and laughing it up some more. Eventually the meeting finished and as I was leaving I started thinking ''You just sat in a room with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and George fucking Lucas. You are the King of the Universe, pal!'' I got back to my hotel room and there was a call from Casey Silver, the Head of Production at Universal Pictures, saying ''John, I have some rather alarming news. '' Before I got to that meeting, Bob and Marty were talking and they decided they were going to do CAPE FEAR (1991) and they put our project on hold for six months.

When I made HENRY, I got three fan letters. One from Eric Bogosian, one from John Waters, and one from David Mamet. Since then I have worked with all three of them. My agent arranged a meeting with Eric, since he had sent me the fan letter, and it turned out he was getting ready to do a film of his show, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. It snowballed into him asking me if I would be interested in doing it, and I said yes. We made the film with Fred Zollo and his partner Nicky Paleologos, who had produced the stage show. Eric and them had all grown up together in Woburn, Massachusetts as kids. 

Was it a completely fresh challenge for you filming a live show? 
To me it was like doing the Superbowl because there's no ''Cut! Let's go again!'' Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's cameraman, was our Director of Photography, and we had three cameras running. We shot two complete performances of the show. On the first performance we shot the odd numbered characters one way, and then moved the cameras for the even numbered ones. On the second performance we did vice versa. Each night we sat there with three monitors, and there was no going back. I was drenched in sweat with the tension because once the show started there was no stopping and we had no control once it was in motion. 

How did making the TV film GIRLS IN PRISON from a Sam Fuller script happen? 
I was asked to be on the jury at a film festival and I had no idea until I got there that the chairman of the jury was Sam Fuller. He had been a crime reporter before WW2, and he told me that the law that established the criterion for criminal insanity in the United States was the McNaughton Law. That was kind of the icebreaker and we got to be friends. Lou Arkoff, the son of Samuel Z. Arkoff, who used to run American International Pictures, was making this show called Rebel Highway for Showtime. He got ten directors and we got to choose which one of the old AIP titles we wanted to remake. We could do the film any way we liked. We could do it as it was originally done or we could throw the old script out and start over, which was what we did. I got Sam and Christa Fuller to write it. 

Did you try and shoot it like a Sam Fuller film? 
To some degree, yes. I tried to homage Sam in numerous ways. 

You said you originally thought you might be a television director, and aside from the many films you've directed you have directed television episodes and television movies. How have you enjoyed these experiences? 
My first television experience was Homicide: Life on the Street. It was shot by a guy I went to graduate school with named Jean de Segonzac, who is now a major director of episodic TV himself. He was probably one of the finest hand-held cameramen that ever worked, and I used him to shoot my movie NORMAL LIFE. Normally TV episodes are shot in eight days but since they were shooting all hand-held in Baltimore, Homicide was always shot in seven days. I think all young directors should go and do some episodic television and learn the discipline of moving that fast, where you don't have time to endlessly fuss over things and decisions need to be made in a hurry. In one episode we were doing, a character had a pen fetish and when the cops finally broke into the place where he lived, there were strings and strings of pens hung everywhere. The production designer was Vincent Peranio, who like most of the people on the show came up from working with John Waters on his films in Baltimore. It was a great and wild bunch of people. Vince said ''When we were making our movies, we'd work as long as we needed to and we would agonize as long as we could. If we had to put a pen on a desk, we would bring out a hundred pens and try to decide which color would be best. Once you get into TV, it's ''Grab a fucking pen, put it on the desk, shoot it, and let's go, we're moving on. Right, next ... '' '' 

Do you think your TV experiences improved you considerably as a director? 
Yes, and I don't think I'd have been able to make THE HARVEST on the schedule I had, had I not done television like that. 

WILD THINGS was a departure for you. Did you immediately know what kind of tone and approach the film was going to have after first reading the script? 
I knew I wanted it rewritten by Kem Nunn. Stephen Peters, who wrote the original draft, is brilliant on plot and we didn't change any of it, but I felt Kem Nunn was stronger on texture and character and place. The producer, Peter Guber, sent us off to Florida, where none of us had spent much time and we spent ten days there getting shepherded around to places and meeting people who were like people in the story. When I read the script I thought ''As crazy as it is, I do believe it could happen in the world that we live in.'' Once I believe that a story can happen in the real world, then I know how to direct it. 

Did you quickly see the commercial appeal of the film? 
I was at a point in my career where I needed to do a commercial picture, and that was one of the key reasons I chose the film. I really liked the script, but it was also me asking myself ''What sells? Sex and violence. You want sex and violence? Well, here you go. How much can you take?'' 

Was the level of humor present in the original script? 
I received Stephen's script whole. I had never met him before. But I know Kem Nunn quite well. We had worked together on a couple of things. He's the co-creator of John From Cincinatti and he worked on Sons of Anarchy, but he's a novelist and his first book was nominated for the National Book Award. He's a really wonderful writer and we share a really dry, cynical sense of humor, so we worked together on the script, adding humor. When the studio read one of his early drafts, they weren't sure of the dialogue, but fortunately one of the executives, Jason Blumenthal, stuck up for it. The dialogue is the kind of the dialogue that is not good in an obvious way. You need to hear it played. 

Was Kevin Bacon a producer on the film from the beginning? 
Because of the lurid nature of the script, it was difficult to get actors, and so he came on as a producer. When he saw the finished movie he called me from an airplane that was getting ready to take off and said ''I saw the movie last night and I loved it, but let me tell you something that I never told you before. When I first read the script I said to myself that in the wrong hands this could really be a piece of shit. '' It was hard getting the first actor in the pool. Peter Guber is nothing if not generous with money and his time and they paid Kevin more than he had ever been paid before, and they gave him a producer credit as well and a little bit more money to try and attract other actors. To his credit, Kevin never took his producer role too seriously or try and impose his will in any way. 

Did you find the sex scenes easy to direct? 
I don't think sex scenes are ever easy to direct. There is always a lot of tension around them. The schedule goes out, and every actor knows what day their sex scene is. The tension builds as you get closer to those days. It's not so much fun to have two actors take their clothes off in front of a crew and pretend to have sex, and for the actors more than anyone. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.