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Herschell Gordon Lewis

Director - "Blood Feast", "The Wizard of Gore"
Interview by: 
Suspiriorum

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the "Godfather of Gore", one of the most influential figures in the horror field. With producer David F. Friedman, he invented the gore film in 1963 with ‘Blood Feast’, a low budget B-movie exploitation classic that has had instant end enduring appeal. He quite filmmaking in 1972 after making ‘The Gore-Gore Girls’, but now, 30 years on, he is making a triumphant return to the field with ‘Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat’ (aka ‘Blood Feast 2: Blood Buffet’). A terrifically evocative & nostalgic (not to mention very gory, gross & funny) film, ‘Blood Feast 2’ had it’s world premiere in Edinburgh at Dead by Dawn, Scotland’s premiere Horror film festival, on the 30th of March 2002.

I had the chance to meet with Herschell the day before the screening. Over a mug of hot chocolate in the Filmhouse café bar, & with a twinkle in his eyes, Herschell told me all about his new film.

HV: You’re here with ‘Blood Feast 2’…

HGL: Yes, we’re screening both the original ‘Blood Feast’, & the new one ‘Blood Feast 2’. This, in fact, to the best of my knowledge is the first screening of ‘Blood Feast 2’. The film was just finished.

So, how did ‘Blood Feast 2’ come about?

Over a period of years, I’ve been approached innumerable times by people who say "Let’s make ‘Blood Feast 2’", and I’ve developed a defence mechanism – I say, "Put your deal together, and call me." That effectively gets rid of them. This was different. A fellow named Jacky Morgan called me. I, by the way, was in a town called Fort Lauderdale in Florida. He said, "I’m in Fort Lauderdale shooting a movie here, I’m the line producer and I’d like to talk some business with you." That was a different approach. So we met for coffee, & he said, "I’m interested in making ‘Blood Feast 2’". And, I gave him my standard answer – "Put your deal together and call me." To my total astonishment, about two to three months later, he sent me a 100 page professionally written script. I said, "Great balls of fire, this man is serious!" He called to ask me what I thought of the script, & I told him I felt that it was out of it’s time, that is that the industry had gone beyond that approach which was totally humourless. He said, "Well, give me some suggestions." Feeling like an idiot, I sat at my little keyboard and typed out a whole bunch of suggestions to put some black humour into this movie. I emailed them to him, & said, "Well, that’s the last of him, and why did I bother?" About three weeks later, I got a 110-page script in the mail, with my suggestions incorporated into it. And, at that point, I realised that this was not the typical, "Hey, Let’s make ‘Blood Feast 2’". Subsequent to that, Jacky Morgan and his scriptwriter, a man named W. Boyd Ford, came to Fort Lauderdale, & met with me & we hammered out a deal for me to direct ‘Blood Feast 2’ - which I did with great elan (!).

Will there be as long a wait for the next film?

I hope not. I hadn’t realised how exhilarating it is to make movies. Times had passed, I’d been leading a very good life, but there’s an excitement to movie making. It’s a strange amalgam of the creative and the technical that you seldom find elsewhere, and I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it. Of course, the whole technique has changed, it’s so much easier to make movies today than it was when I shot the original ‘Blood Feast’. Standing behind that camera, I felt that I had come home. So I hope it won’t be that long to make, not ‘Blood Feast 3’ necessarily, but I have a film I do want to make which is called ‘Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Grim Fairy Tale’.

I’m looking forward to that already. Since you made your earlier films, a lot of people have pushed gore a lot further than you could. How has that changed your approach to ‘Blood Feast 2’?

That’s an astute question. Well, you see I cold no longer get by with what we did in the original ‘Blood Feast’, where we were really pioneers using department store mannequins. Today, one can walk into any magic shop, & find hands that twist, & you can buy blood that squirts. We had to invent as we went along. And as the major companies moved into that genre, with their moving mandibles & electronic devices, to compete at all I could not possible go back to those cave-man approaches, where we would dig a hole in something & throw some strange blood into it. So yes, the sophistication has been profound in that business.

How did ‘Blood Feast 2’ compare to the original ‘Blood Feast’?

It’s one step beyond. Obviously, with the number of gory movies and splatter films that have come into being since the original ‘Blood Feast’, each of which has to take a step beyond the first one, or else there’s no point to it. Redundancy does not work in the motion picture industry. I felt that to re-establish my strange posture in this industry, I had to do something that would really bring a state of shock to the people who saw it. And as you’ll see ‘Blood Feast 2’, I hope you’ll agree it’s the most outrageous movie anybody ever made.

Was it hard to get back into the "swing" of filmmaking after such a long break?

I had thought it would be, but it wasn’t. I’ve got to give you a background here. I have been out of the industry for quite a while. Yes, I’ve made some television commercials, it wasn’t as though I was on the planet Mars, but I was not making feature films. The crew on this film – to have a crew, of course was a luxury for me – felt "Here is this antique, coming out of the museum", and that bothered me. Because they treated me as though first of all I was made of porcelain, & would break if someone came near me, and second as though my whole education in filmmaking ended with the nineteenth century. So, by the second day of shooting think I had disavowed them of that, so when I said "I want the camera over here, I want a 75mm lens", the camera was over there with a 75 mm lens. And to this day I will tell you I can load that camera faster than they can. That to me was a point of frustration. I would see the assistant cameraman loading that camera, & I’d say "Let me in there", because I couldn’t imagine why it took him so long. It was a Mitchell movement in a Panavision camera, of course the equipment is so much better today than it was – what I had even when I shot the movie was an ancient camera that was I suppose destined to be in a museum, & looked like it came out of one. It’s so much easier making films today than it was then that anyone can walk on a set, and yell "Roll sound", & "Cut", but what happens in-between is what puts some people in the seats of the theatre, or causes them to buy a DVD. And that was my intention.

On your previous films, you did many different jobs. How many did you do on ‘Blood Feast 2’?

On ‘Blood Feast 2’, because the crew was of such outrageous size, not only did I not have to carry cables & fix the lighting, which was always my job, but I would sit in a chair & be a director, and watch the action on a television monitor. So I wouldn’t have to wait until that night looking at the dailies to see whether we had a microphone in the picture. I directed the movie, & I wrote the theme music for it. And that was the extent of my participation. In fact, I was not involved in the cutting of it, which worries me to some extent. I know it shouldn’t, because I shot it ‘to cut’, but I suspect that because Jacky Morgan the producer called me on the phone last week & said, "Well, whatever you think, at some point you will have your directors cut", that he has eliminated something I wanted in, or put in some things I wanted out.

Have you seen the finished film yet?

I’ve seen a rough-cut. I’ll see it for the first time tomorrow afternoon. I have no idea what Adele [The festival director] has here, nor does she know yet because she got a DVD from Jacky Morgan. Whether it represents what he & I had agreed upon, I don’t know. All I have seen is a rough cut, which isn’t bad.

I noticed the name John Waters in the cast list…

John Waters is an old friend, & John either credits or accuses me of being the reason he’s in the movie business. When I last saw John, which was about two years ago, he had literally forced me to attend a film festival in Baltimore, where he lives. And I went, because he’s my friend. And the last three words he said to me before I left town were, "I owe you." And I said, "I’ll collect!" So Jacky Morgan said to me, "What are the chances of getting John Waters in this movie?" I said, "As what?" He said, "Well, we’ll give him a bit part, it’ll look good in the credits." I said, "Well, it’s worth a shot." Jacky called John & of course could not get through to him. I hate to be in that position, but he [Jacky] was so intense on this point I called John. I said, "John, do you remember the last three words you said to me?" "Goodbye?" I said, "No, that wasn’t it. It was ‘I owe you’". He said, "Uh-oh! What do you want?" So I told him. And he came to New Orleans and did a spectacularly good job. Everybody there of course was much impressed with him. And as we shot that day, he kept saying, "Well, give me some more lines". And we kept making up little bits & pieces for him to do. So, yes, John Waters is very much in this movie.

You wrote a lot of music for you films. Do you have any formal music training?

Yes, and no. When I was a very small child, I studied the violin, as every small child did. And then I played the piano because my hands became too big really to be any good on the violin. But I was never formally trained as a musician. When we shot ‘Blood Feast’, I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted weird sounds; I wanted a cello, a trombone, kettledrums, & a backup with an organ. I could not seem to explain to anybody what I wanted. It was not a case of being an auteur, it was a case of 1) wanting to get it done fast, and 2) not wanting to spend money, because some of the prices I was quoted even then for scoring a movie was more than the movie cost. So, I sat down with a book, I still have it – "Anderson’s’ Orchestration". And I suffered through this. It took much longer than it took to shoot the movie. Note by note, I score ‘Blood Feast’. And I will tell you, the feeling of accomplishment when you get a very small group of musicians together, & the music sounds the way it’s supposed to sound – that beats anything the movie business has. Not that I’d ever try that again, because it’s been that many years, & I haven’t attacked a score since. Yes, I wrote & sang the theme to ‘2000 Maniacs’, but that’s a lot different. In ‘Blood Feast’, I had to score this note by note. And the cello is written in the bass clef, and, I said, "wait a minute", and then… it was not easy at all. But to this day, I am extremely grateful for having had that experience. And I tell you flatly; I couldn’t possibly do it again.

You had a very successful career change. What was it that made you give up filmmaking?

Well, I had always been in the advertising business. In fact, with movies I had always felt that anyone can aim a camera, but to get people to show up in the theatre was a different story – that’s showmanship, that advertising, that’s marketing. I became a master of campaigns to the point at which other producers were giving me their movies to do the ads, & the one-sheets, the whole radio spots or whatever, to sell the movie. When it became apparent that the major film companies had invaded my territory, & I could no longer compete with the budgets I had, it was time. I felt I’d had a good run at it, but grosses were dropping, & when I made ‘The Gore-Gore girls’, which was the last movie up to ‘Blood Feast 2’, & saw I was having trouble getting it played, even though I felt that the effects in that were stronger than I had had before, I felt a good business decision was to let it go. So I devoted full time to what had been a half time proposition, which was advertising & marketing. Over the years, I have reached a position of some prominence in that business, & unlike movies where I was an outlaw all those years, I’m well thought of. I give speeches all over the world, I’ve written 26 books all on marketing & direct marketing, & I love it. It’s been rewarding for me both emotionally & financially, & I had felt that movies were simply a historical artefact – until Jacky Morgan showed up.

Did you always intend to return to filmmaking?

Well, I had always hoped to. You see the difference between a hope & an intention is the difference between dreaming & reality. I had not thought it would happen. I felt that I was something of a historical artefact, a monument standing in the park somewhere. But now, it’s become reality again.

Does it frustrate you at all that quite a few people are unaware of your career in marketing & just think of you as "The Godfather of Gore"?

Well, that has changed because of the Internet. You see, the worlds have collided. For years, it would puzzle me. I would give a speech on direct marketing, whether it might be in London, or in New York, or in Chicago, or in Paris for that matter, or Singapore. And somebody would come up with a photograph or a videocassette for me to autograph. And we’d get a good chuckle out of it – "How’d you know I was the same person?" But now, I’ve been exposed. And if you go to a search engine on the web & look up my name, you get seven thousand references, most of which are film – that’s what’s so funny. So I have not been able to escape my past, nor do I deny it. And people in the marketing end now recognise that, and we have a good chuckle over it, but it doesn’t really damage my image any.

Was it hard for you to convince people to take you seriously as a marketing man?

No, because I had always been in the advertising business. I had never really let the two pieces overlap, except when I was doing advertising for movies. At the same time, I had other advertising accounts - banks & manufacturers and so on, so it was simply a sliding into full time rather than part time.

You were one of the first people to use product placement in films. Do you think that that has gone too far nowadays?

I certainly do think it’s gone too far. I think that the James Bond movies are disgraceful in their product placements. Some movies are so intent on getting Coca-Cola or BMW in the movie that they’ve lost sight of what the movie is supposed to be. What we did in product placement was try to get free lunches, that’s all. In fact, I had Colonel Sanders himself in one movie, because that meant that we could get free lunches at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It wasn’t an intent to get product placement. I think that ‘2000 Maniacs’, Pontiac gave us several automobiles to use. But they were just cars as far as I was concerned. But now you see people are building their movies around product placements – and that to me is just not an ethical way to make movies, you’re splitting your interests altogether.

There have been rumours of a remake of ‘2000 Maniacs’. Do you know anything about that?

Yes I do. How do you know anything about it? You see, you’re dangerous. There are two young chaps in California, who want to make a movie called ‘2001 Maniacs’. My former partner Dave Friedman called me over two years ago, and I was on a bicycling trip through the wine valleys of California, and he said, "Where are you, I’ve got to send you a contract to sign". I said, "What are you talking about?" "These fellows are going to make ‘2001 Maniacs’. What do you care?" Well, out of a sense of obligation to my old partner, he faxed me this agreement, which was full of ifs, and what, and perhaps, and maybe, and so on, so I signed the thing & promptly forgot about it. Until two weeks ago, when I got a frantic call from a man named – I’ve got his name somewhere… [He fishes a piece of paper out of his inside jacket pocket] Chris Kobin, who is one of the two partners making ‘2001 Maniacs’ – he said, "We’re ready to go. All we need is your signature on one more document." I said, "You’ve got to be kidding after all this time." He said, "No, we have all our financing in place, we’re ready. You will be executive producer." I said [sarcastic] "Gee, that’s exciting", knowing full well what an executive producer is – a nothing. It’s a supernumerary, like in an opera where someone stands on stage holding a candle, an executive producer has no function at all. And of all the films I’ve made, the one I’d least like to have remade is ‘2000 Maniacs’. It’s my personal favourite, I can see it doing nothing but damage, but at this point there are four of us who own that movie. I’m only one. Dave Friedman is another, a fellow named Mike Vraney of Something Weird video who is the principal distributor of all these things is the third, & a fellow named Jim Maslon, who has made his career buying up my old movies, is the fourth. If I say no, the deal collapses. And I can’t do that to those three people. So, in came this FedEx with this sheet of paper for me to sign, & I signed it & sent it back. They say they are going to make this film in May, with my name on it as executive producer. They’re going to shoot it in California, I’m probably not ever going to see it until it’s released, but I’m the executive producer.

Which other filmmakers do you admire?

Oh dear, that’s an unfair question. Each person has his own imprimatur on a film. There are things about John Carpenter’s films I admire. There are things about Wes Craven’s films I admire. I admire Quentin Tarantino’s wildness, but not his lack of discipline. Who else might be in this category that I might admire? Give me some candidates…

Someone like Peter Jackson maybe?

That’s a mixed bag. Although I will say I haven’t seen Lord of the Rings yet, & I suspect I will admire that immensely – just the scope of it. From the brilliance of shooting all three at one time, that I certainly do admire, instead of waiting as George Lucas does and then coming up with another cartoon. I am not a Boswell of this industry, & I will sit at night & watch whatever is on satellite, & say, "Oh yeah, I like that", or "Ugh, turn that off".