Thursday, May 28, 2009
John McNaughton on "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"
Where did the idea for the story come from?
JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I had done this series of documentaries for MPI, called Dealers in Death, which were about American gangsters, primarily from the Prohibition era. We had scoured the archives for a lot of public domain photographs and footage, got Broderick Crawford to narrate it for us, and made a little money on that project. I was getting to produce and direct another documentary piece, based on professional wrestling because I'd found someone who had a collection of wrestling footage from the 1950s and 1960s, with Bobo Brazil and Killer Kowalski and Dick the Bruiser and Andre the Giant, from the period of wrestling before the WWF or the WWE.
I lived in the city proper, but I was journeying out to Oak Forest where MPI was located. It was two brothers, Waleed and Malik Ali, who owned the company. I went out to meet Waleed, to talk about doing these wrestling documentaries. When I got to their offices, I sat with Waleed and he informed me that he had contacted the person who had the footage for sale, and what happened was that person with the footage had quoted a price and when the Ali brothers approached him, saying, "Okay, we'll negotiate on that price," the guy realized that the brothers had money, so he increased his price. The Ali brothers were not to be dealt with in that manner, so Waleed informed me, "Listen, we're not going to do business with this guy. He's a crook."
Early on in the video business -- and they got in at the beginning -- the major studios weren't interested in video rights, because there just wasn't enough money involved. So they were selling off the rights to their films. A couple of companies, like Vestron and Pyramid, became wealthy for a short period of time, until the studios saw the potential in the video market and started creating their own video divisions. And those companies went out of business.
But in the early days of video, you could buy the video rights quite cheaply for low-budget horror films, and since a lot of sort of "b" horror titles hadn't been seen widely, they were very successful on video. A "b" schlock horror film that people may not have been interested in going to the theater to see, they were more than happy to rent because they're a lot of fun.
So what was happening at this time was that those titles were becoming so popular that the rights acquisitions were becoming more and more expensive. And so Waleed had determined that it would make sense for them to fund a horror film and thereby own all rights into perpetuity, rather than just buying the video rights for a limited period of time. So he proposed to me that we should join forces and make a horror film.
I went in thinking I was going to be doing these documentaries and, instead, it was the day that my dream came true, completely unexpectedly. I was kind of in shock and after concluding the meeting with Waleed I was walking down the corridor, and in an office down the hall was the office of an old friend of mine who I had grown up with, Gus Kavooras. I had gone to grammar school and high school with him and we had been friends throughout childhood; in fact, I was the one who introduced him to the Ali brothers, which is how he came to have a job with them.
Gus was always a collector of the strange and the arcane and the weird. I stopped in to see him and I was kind of in shock. I said, "Gus, Waleed just offered me $100,000 to make a horror movie. I have no idea what my subject will be." And he said, "Here, look at this." He took a videocassette off the shelf and popped it in the machine. It was a segment from the news magazine show, 20/20, and the segment was on Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Elwood Toole, who were serial killers. The term "serial killer" was coined in 1983 by the FBI. In 1986 I had never heard the term before and this was something new to me, the idea that there were these random murderers going around.
Most murders are committed by people previously acquainted to the victim. Husband kill wives, wives kill husbands, husbands kill wives' lovers, wives kill husbands' lovers. Most murderers are committed by people who are known by the victim. But this was a new trend in murder that there were these individuals who were just randomly murdering strangers. It was, indeed, very horrifying. There were some interviews with Henry and a lot of photographs; he was really a creepy character. And so that became the germ for the story.
Was the budget an issue while you developed the story?
JOHN MCNAUGHTON: The budget was written in stone. That was the mandate from Waleed, "Make me a horror film for $100,000." So the budget was always a consideration.
Did you set out to make such a controversial movie?
JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I intended to make something very shocking. I remember, in my youth, pictures that sort of crossed the line. Back in those days, there would be these incredibly lurid radio advertisements that if you listened to rock music on the radio a lot -- like most kids in my generation did -- they had these incredibly lurid campaigns for pictures like Last House on the Left and Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Those pictures were sort of watersheds, alongside pictures like The Wild Bunch. The Wild Bunch was incredibly shocking; up until then, in a Western, if somebody got shot they fell down. There was no squib work, there was no spouting blood.
If was like, "Okay, you've got $100,000 and a chance to do a film and it's going to have to be a horror film, so let's make a horror film that is going to horrify." (Co-writer) Richard Fire and I set ourselves a goal, and it was if we're charged with a horror film, a. Let's redefine the genre, and b., Totally horrify the audience.
Like many things, the words "horror film" is like "liberal and conservative." The original meanings of the words have gotten lost. One would think that conservatives would be interested in conserving the environment, because the word comes from conservation. When you think of "horror film" now, it's a set of conventions and we meant to defy those conventions. Monsters, creatures from outer space, ghosts, the genre often includes the supernatural or something beyond reality. But we didn't have a budget for any of that, so we set ourselves the goal of, "How can we most completely horrify an audience without using the traditional conventions?"
What advice do you give to someone starting out on a low-budget project?
JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I would tell them, especially with the technology that's available today, is to make a movie. They're making fewer films today then they were back when we did Henry. And there are fewer directors being hired. And it costs a lot more money to make movies and so there's a great fear factor.
I went to Columbia College, and in my day you could check out a Bolex 16mm camera, but you still had to pay for the film and pay for the processing which could get expensive. They had rudimentary editing facilities at the time, but it was rather daunting. Now at Columbia College I don't know how many AVIDs they have, an amazing number of them.
You can now buy a HD video camera for around $3,000. You can go out and shoot a film that looks reasonably decent. You can cut it on your Mac. You can do a picture pretty cheaply today and if you have friends and know actors and everybody wants to make a movie, you can get by pretty cheaply and make a movie. And I think that's the most important thing, because to move out to Los Angeles and try to break in is a really hard way to go.
But if you make a film and get on-line and see what festivals will be interested in your film, the opportunities are much greater now then they were. I was just very fortunate that these guys were willing to put up $100,000. Just trying to work one's way up is a tough way to go.
It makes a big difference when you can get an hour's worth of shooting for $20. It's become incredibly cheap, while film has never been cheap and never will be cheap.