Jack Hill is best known as the filmmaker who, with the hugely enjoyable blaxploitation pictures THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971), THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974), made Pam Grier the icon she is today. Hill was also behind the cult classic SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975) (a film beloved by Quentin Tarantino, who brought the film back into the spotlight), as well as the recently rediscovered cult classics SPIDER BABY (1967) and PIT STOP (1969). He has had one of the most varied and fascinating careers in filmmaking, and in the second part of a two-part interview I spoke with him about his love of stories with strong, beautiful women; working with Sid Haig and Pam Grier; his approach to filmmaking and creating outrageous action scenes; entering the blaxploitation genre; shooting films on a low budget; writing CITY ON FIRE (1979) and DEATH SHIP (1980); and how he feels about his legacy and the resurgence of interest in his work. 

Part one of the interview. 

Sid Haig
Your films display a love of strong, beautiful women. Where do you think this came from? 
Oh, I don't know. I just felt like this was a niche that had not been explored. I enjoyed it, and actresses loved the roles. It was a happy arrangement. Once you have a little success, you tend to get typecast yourself but in a good way if that's what you want to do. I was the guy they came to with films with strong, beautiful women.

What did you love the most about working with Sid Haig? 
He's just a wonderful, versatile actor. He can do anything. One of the things that I liked best about him was that he was a dancer and he uses his body really well as an actor.

Your films, even when they go to dark places, always have an upbeat energy to them. Is that important to you? 
I guess so. I've never really thought of it. It seems to me that any drama you want to present to an audience needs that. It's just an instinct.

Were you nervous about making films in the blaxploitation genre? 
When I was growing up in Hollywood High School, segregation was endemic. But musicians especially have this thing where they are able to overlook the whole racial thing. My friends and I used to go down to the jazz places where the black musicians were playing be-bop, and there was kind of a bond, and race wasn't an issue. But one day, this black kid called Ernie came into the music department, and the Head of the Department, a guy named Holmes, said to me ''We gotta get this crow outta here. '' That was what I grew up with. But I felt like I personally had some sense of the black lifestyle, and I wanted to bring that lifestyle and some of the characters I knew into movies. When I got the opportunity to do that, I really jumped at it. COFFY was really kind of a key. AIP were making black films at that time but the term 'blaxploitation' hadn't been coined yet. They felt that they had a certain guaranteed black audience and they based their budgets on that. COFFY was one of the first black films to have what they call a 'crossover audience'. It showed that white audiences would want to see the black lifestyle and black characters onscreen. The film helped these things enter the mainstream and I've always been proud of the fact I was able to contribute to that.

COFFY was the film that started my love of blaxploitation films. 
I was fortunate that Larry Gordon was different from most studio heads who seem to have nothing but contempt for the audience. He supported me against the suits that just wanted sex and violence. We wanted to get something better into it.

Your action scenes are always so outrageous, fun and well-staged. Do you have a personal favorite? 
When I started making blaxploitation movies there were very few black stunt people, and no black stunt co-ordinators. There were absolutely zero black stunt women. So there was a problem in getting any kind of action scene. The one that I think worked best was in FOXY BROWN. It was a brawl in a lesbian bar, which I always thought was a wonderful idea. A critic recently writing about it remarked that the patrons in the bar ''made the Teamsters look like the Rockettes''!

My favorite action scene of yours is the action scene in the roller-skating rink in SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. It's so startling. 
I remember we had a screening of the film some years ago and when that scene started the audience broke into applause!

How did you know how far to take the outrageousness in your films? 
I don't know really. I just did whatever felt right to me. What I liked to do was to set up a cliche, so the audience thought they knew what to expect. But then I would do a switch on them. It always seemed to work well.

Did you enjoy the challenge of shooting your films on the fly and very quickly? 
Yes, but when I look back I wonder how I ever did it! Especially PIT STOP, with all of the challenges we had. Working with a tight schedule is in some ways an advantage. If you look at someone like Francis Coppola, he would write the script, and do a rehearsal of the entire script in front of the crew. My way of working is that I don't necessarily want the actors to know each other, let alone rehearse with each other. I like to get them on set and have them come up with ideas spontaneously that I would never have come up with. Of course, when you're on a tight budget you can't afford rehearsal time anyway! I try to make an advantage of shortcomings.

There has been a renaissance of your work over the last two decades. When you watch your films, do you watch them with a sense of nostalgia or through a modern lens? 
I don't watch them. I just see all the mistakes that I made and all the things I could have done better.

How do you feel about your films being reappraised for their social significance? 
I'm happy people can see the depth in the movies, because that was my intention. I didn't expect audiences at the time to appreciate what I was trying to say in a conscious way, but nowadays I'm delighted people can see what I was trying to do.

Why do you think your films have lasted so well? 
All I can say is that I tried to make movies that I would like to have seen myself. I admit that I'm pleased that films of mine like COFFY and FOXY BROWN are still going strong whereas a lot of the films that I was jealous of at the time have been forgotten about. It's kind of nice.

I think maybe some of the reasons are that there is a lack of cynicism in your work. Your films are always vibrant, and good-humored, with a lot of heart. 
Yes, I think one thing I was good at was combining comedy with non-comedic elements.

After SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, you only directed one more film, SORCERESS (1982). Was this because you were developing films that didn't get made? 
It was a little bit of that. Actors get stereotyped, and directors get stereotyped even more. I was known as the guy who made black films because those were my most successful films, and I wanted to start doing different things. But I couldn't get the kinds of films I wanted to direct, and I didn't want to direct the kinds of films I was being offered. I remember AIP offered me RAPE SQUAD (1974), and they got mad when I turned it down: ''Who is he to turn down a picture?'' Much to my satisfaction when they made the film, it flopped, and soon after the studio went under.

You co-wrote CITY ON FIRE. Would you have liked to have directed the film? 
I wrote a script that had action in it that had never been done before, based on research that I had done on the firebombing of Dresden in the Second World War. It was a Canadian production so they had to have a Canadian director, and he didn't get the fire scene at all. What he did with it was totally absurd on the screen. It's really hard for me to watch because it could have been a terrific scene.

How about DEATH SHIP? 
That was another Canadian production where they had to have a Canadian director. In fact, they paid me to give my credit to a Canadian writer.

Do you see your influence on other filmmakers when you watch films like, for example, Tarantino's films? 
People say he's been influenced by me, but I'm not sure if it's true. I'm not saying I have a great mind, but sometimes certain minds think alike!

What projects are you working on right now? 
I'm working on a novel. I have quite a few stories and screenplays that I have always thought would make good novels. The one I'm working on now is a historical novel based on the life of the violinist Niccolo Paganini, who was reputed to have made a pact with the Devil, as is well known. Paganini gives an unofficial deathbed confession to a young monk, who at the end of his own life many years later, reveals the true secret of Paganini's success. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.

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