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 first part of a three-part interview I spoke with McNaughton about the early years, his first documentary film DEALERS IN DEATH (1984), and the making of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.     

Part two of the interview.    

What were some of your most memorable experiences watching movies growing up? 
I probably watched a lot more television than movies, but when I was a very little boy my mother took me downtown in Chicago to see Walt Disney's PETER PAN (1953). In those days they would show the first-run movies in downtown Chicago first. We lived way out on the south side, and the movies would work their way out to the edges of the city. So you'd have to wait for it to get to your neighborhood. Over the course of its run I think I made my parents take me back about ten times. I loved that film. I used to dress up as Captain Hook on Halloween and go trick or treating. When people think of me they think of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and WILD THINGS, and excess, but that was probably the most formative film that I had ever seen. 

Some of your previous jobs included being a carnival worker, a silversmith, a factory worker, and a builder of one-off ocean racing sail boats. Did all these experiences come in useful for when you became a filmmaker? 
Oh, absolutely. I don't mean to denigrate him in any way but someone like Tarantino makes movies that are basically about movies. To me, that's just a post-modern approach. I look to Godard as the first person who planted that flag. I like to approach from life. To me, a lot of young filmmakers go to film school and come out and go to work in the film business and their life experience is very limited. I grew up on the south side of Chicago and if I had never done anything but that I would have had an amazing set of experiences! When I'm on the set and things start getting slow, I'll start telling stories about what my neighborhood was like growing up and invariably whoever is listening just looks at me and says ''That never happened. '' And I'll say ''Believe what you will. But I guarantee you it did. '' Someone compared my life experiences to a novelist's resume where you try to do a lot of different things in order to become a good writer, but I didn't do these jobs or have these experiences so when I became a filmmaker I'd know all about it. These jobs were what was in front of me. I worked in the steel mills, for example, because that's what everybody did where I lived. I've had very different experiences like hanging out in Princess Caroline's house in Monaco with my friend George Condo, the painter. I also spent time with my old friend Slim Scanlon, who stole his first Harley Davidson when he was 13. He was a nefarious character but one of the best guys I have ever known. These experiences come in handy when you are rendering characters. Being from the working class I am often amazed at how caricatured characters from the working class tend to be in film. I'm sure if you're African-American you feel the same way often. I've hung around with some of the world's biggest movie stars and the lowest criminals, and everyone in between. 

One of the things that strikes me about your films is that the characters seem so real and their worlds so lived-in, so that when they act out their dark impulses, it's all the more effective and disturbing. I'm thinking especially of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. 
Michael Rooker, who grew up in a town called Jasper, Alabama, came up very hard and because he was so gifted, he got a scolarship to the Goodman School of Drama here in Chicago and got a college education and studied acting. One time I asked him where he got his inspiration for playing Henry and without a beat he said ''Oh, I have an uncle who is just like this guy. '' 

When was it that you decided filmmaking was what you wanted to do? 
I was in art school at the University of Illinois, and I had this epiphany that the art form that had been most influential on my life and was the prime influence for me growing up, as much as I loved painting and sculpting and all the standard forms of art, was television. I was an only child, and if you quiz me about any TV show from the 50s to the 70s, I can tell you a lot about it. So I left the art school and transferred back to Columbia College in Chicago, which had a film production department and I studied television production and still photography. I expected to make television shows and not films necessarily. 

How did your first film, the documentary DEALERS IN DEATH, come about? 
Ray Atherton, the guy who gets the TV over his head in HENRY, is long deceased but he was one of the first video pirates, and a genius in his way. That is why we made him a dealer in stolen merchandise in HENRY because in one sense, that's what he had been. In the early days of video he had been a print collector and he knew where all the best prints of any film or TV show were and who was holding them. If you had the best prints then you could duplicate them and you would have the best looking videos. A lot of stuff had fallen into the public domain, and he was sort of a jailhouse expert on that. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), for example, was improperly registered for copyright for some reason, and back in the days of video everybody was selling it. Ray was up on 42 felony counts on the first video piracy trial in Los Angeles, and he beat 40 of them. Roddy MacDowall and Rock Hudson were also defendants in that trial. That's where they set the Fair Sale doctrine and determined the rules of what you could sell and couldn't sell. Ray kind of went broke defending himself and he came back to Chicago and went to work for the company that would become MPI. That's where I met him. He had the idea to do DEALERS IN DEATH because he knew where a lot of footage of gangsters was, and I had a contact at the Chicago Historical Society who worked in the photo department. Between the still photos we got from him and the footage Ray had access to, we made a series of documentaries. We got Broderick Crawford, who was still alive, to narrate them for $2500, I believe, in cash. 

MPI also financed HENRY. How did the film come together? 
I used to work in a bar in the far side of the south side of Chicago and this guy came in and got pretty drunk. This guy was repping for MPI. This was before there was home video, and they were renting projectors to hotels for presentations. This was as close as there was to a film business in the south side of Chicago. He gave me his card and I went to see someone at MPI and they hired me to run prints in these Super 8 loop machines that they had installed in pizza joints and burger restaurants around Chicago. I became friends with the guys that owned the company - two brothers named Waleed and Malik Ali. They were originally from Jordan, and they were just in this little business, trying to make a living, and working out of their parents' basement. Waleed was a very brilliant and visionary guy, and we talked about how someday we would make a movie. In the meantime the video business was born and they got into it and started making money. Ray Atherton was bringing them all these prints that were in the public domain and they were dupicating them and selling them. Then they started buying the rights to B-grade horror films and they were doing very well with those but that market took off and the rights kept going up and up in price. They decided that if they could make their own film and own all the rights in perpetuity, then that would be the way to go. Waleed agreed to give me $100, 000 to make a horror film, undisclosed as to what subject. The choice was mine. 

Why did you choose the topic of a serial killer? 
We did those DEALERS IN DEATH films, and they made some money. There were some people in Chicago who were selling footage of professional wrestling from the old days, way before the WWF, when it was really pretty crazy and low rent. We were going to buy that footage and cut some documentaries out of that. I drove from the city to the suburbs to meet Waleed and talk about it, but when I got to the office he said ''John, you know what? We're not going to make those documentaries. The people who had the footage quoted you $10, 000 and the minute they knew we had the money, they doubled the price. I won't do business like that. '' I was somewhat disappointed because that was going to be my living, but then he said ''I'll tell you what though. Let's do what we always said we would do. Let's make a movie. I'll give you $100, 000 to make a horror film. '' I was sort of in shock because that was the dream of my life. We talked for however long we talked and I left, and walked down the hallway to leave the building. Down the hallway there were numerous offices, and one of them was occupied by someone I had grown up with, a guy I had played in rock and roll bands as a kid with on the south side of Chicago named Gus Kavooras. Gus was actually there because I had gotten him a job working there. I walked into his office and I was still in shock. I was like ''Gus, Waleed just offered me $100, 000 to make a horror film. I have no fucking idea what will be the subject. '' He said ''Here, look at this. '' And he took a videocassette and he popped it in his machine. He was a collector of the weird, the arcane and the strange, and he would sit at a table in his office with some VCRs and stacks and stacks of odd stuff he had found. Gus put on the video and it was the television documentary show 20/20. It was three segements and each was a different story. One story was a 20 minute segment on Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Elwood Toole. I watched it for five minutes and I thought ''Here is genuine horror. Here's my story. '' 

What was MPI expecting from the movie? 
They wanted a B-grade exploitation slasher film. They were a little taken aback when they saw what we made. They put it on the shelf. They didn't think it was saleable. 

Why did you decide to go deeper and make a more substantial film than they expected? 
You have to give a lot of credit to the late Richard Fire, who co-wrote the screenplay. I put together the basic outline of the story but I wasn't an accomplished writer at that time by any means, and I needed a writer to work with. Stuart Gordon had been the Artistic Director of the Organic Theater Company here in Chicago. Richard was a writer and an actor in the Company, alongside people like Tom Towles, who would become Ottis in HENRY, Joey Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina, Meshach Taylor, who I used in NORMAL LIFE, and others. They were a superb company of actors. They had a play in Chicago called E/R. If you want to know where that show started, it's with this group. They started hanging around the periphery of an Emergency Room. They would find a subject that interested them, go research it, and then bring it back to the theater and improv it until they had a script. The play became a huge hit in Chicago and it did get bought by one of the TV networks. There was an E.R. TV show based on their play before the big hit series, and it starred Elliott Gould, and it ran for one season. It was bought from them and they had operated on a completion string in poverty. They each made a little chunk of money from the sale and soon thereafter the Company dissolved. Stuart went off to make RE-ANIMATOR (1985), and the rest of them found their way as best they could. Richard was at loose ends. My long-term producing partner, Steve Jones, had done some video work for some of their plays, and he said ''I'll talk to this guy Richard Fire, and see if he's interested. He's very talented. '' Richard was interested in making a living, so he agreed to write the script. But at any rate, his background was in the theater, and when he read what I had written, which was much more towards typical exploitation, his exact words were ''No, no, no, no, no, no, no.'' He insisted we make something of a higher quality, and we hopefully did. 

Given the subject matter, what was it like making the film? 
When we were ripping Otis's head off, and stuff like that, it was so funny. Obviously some of the scenes weren't funny. Some of the scenes were intense. We had a crew of three so there was a lot of hard work and long days, but a sense of camraderie. We got along reasonably well most of the time and it was a grand adventure, because not many of us had made a film before. I had done commercials before but the first movie set that I was on, I was the director. 

Is it true that Michael Rooker stayed in character throughout the shoot? 
You would have to ask him, but I know his wife was having a less than grand time because he did stay in character to some degree. She was pregnant with their first child, a daughter, and she wouldn't tell him about it until we were done shooting. 

What is your favorite memory of Tom Towles? 
Oh, I have so many. We had a memorial service for him here in Chicago after he died, and I got to see some photos of him in these amazing costumes in plays he had acted in in the theater, which were so unlike his movie roles. Tom was in the Marine Reserves here in Chicago when he was a young man. He also had asthma and he was a huge bicycle rider. When he was a young man, he was always in good shape. He wore the spandex pants and all that, and rode his bicycle all over the city. He also loved guns. Some cab driver cut him off and knocked him off his bicycle somewhere in the city of Chicago, and Tommy managed to catch up with him, pull him out of the cab and pistol whip him for the offence. He was a gentle giant. You wouldn't want to piss him off but he was a very benign guy and very lovable. 

Were you surprised by how good the film was when you first saw it? 
No, because it was my first film, so I didn't really know how good it was. It was also two and a half hours in the first cut of the movie! It wasn't nearly as great as the 83 minute version. Elena Maganini, who cut it, was always very maternal, and before she got married and had a child, the films we made together were sort of her babies. Every frame was precious. I took the long cut of the film out to L.A. to show to Walter Shenson, who produced the Beatles movies. The Ali brothers had gotten the video rights to A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) through charm and making him a deal he couldn't refuse. That was their first big title. They got associated with The Beatles, which is as about as good as you can do in this entertainment business. They became friends with Walter and worked on various projects with him. Walter sat patiently and watched the whole two and a half hour cut. He said ''Yeah, kid, pretty good. But you gotta be ruthless. '' So we took it back and we cut it and cut it and cut it until it was 83 minutes. When it's your first film you think you can't cut anything out until you show it to strangers who are yawning and nodding off, and you realise that you have to cut it down. 

It was written in 1985, shot in October and November of that year, and edited in 1986. It was put on the shelf by MPI until 1989. How did it eventually get released? 
MPI had a young man working in the publicity department named Chuck Parello. In those days you had to transfer your negative directly to a 1 inch video. These days that's no longer done. The first video duplication lab that opened here somewhere up in the suburbs was of a very high quality. They used some kind of Bosch machines and ran in real time as opposed to high speed, which would reduce the quality. While they were using that lab, that first batch of VHS cassetes were really nice-looking and of a really high technical quality. I would make up lists of various critics and people in the film business that I either knew or knew of, and Chuck would send out VHS copies of HENRY with cover letters. Eventually we hit a few influential people who actually watched it, and there started to be talk and some buzz. Then it was shown by Joe Coleman, who did the painting that was on the first poster, at one of the little screenings he used to do in his screening room in New York. He liked to show extremely weird and crazy films. He showed HENRY to a small audience and one of the audience members was a critic for The Village Voice named Elliott Stein, who then wrote a full page piece in The Village Voice saying ''This is the best film of the year. '' That was the critical mass. It was shown at the Chicago Film Festival, which was its first festival screening, and it also played at Telluride and took off from there. 

After MPI shelved HENRY, did you worry your career was over before it started? 
No, because I was too young and stupid to think that was going to be the case. In most lives, not everything turns out as you expect it would. I always felt it would gain some momentum and some reputation, no matter what, and that it had the power to walk on its own legs, which it turned out that it did. But there was only so much I could do to make that happen. We almost sold it to Vestron. My friend Steve Hager lives in Manhattan but went to the University of Illinois, and he was the editor of High Times Magazine for many years. He had this big, beautful old apartment up on the Upper West Side of New York, and I would stay there if I went to New York. Steve used to have a roommate who worked for Vestron Video back in the day, and we had a party one night and invited the Vestron people over and screened HENRY. They decided they were going to buy it, but they sat on it for months and then reneged on the deal. They said the reason they backed off was because of legalities, and because we had used the names of the real characters. I found out many years later from a person that worked in the company that that was a lie. They were just afraid of the movie.

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

No comments: