Bill Rebane Interview: An Independent Filmmaker From The Midwest.
My 1986 interview with filmmaker Bill Rebane had an interesting journey; it went from possibly appearing in Fangoria magazine,which would have paid me,to being featured in Gary Svelha's Midnight Marquee,which aside from being given a pat on the head and an "Atta boy, Joe" from Svelha himself, paid nothing. Unfortunately, Bill George once again rears his ugly, balding head in this story as he has from time to time in previous posts. But he's a part of my history, so it is what it is.
It was during this period of time that I listened to whatever Bill said,because I mistakenly thought he knew what he was talking when it came to getting an article published. He said to just send it to Fangoria magazine and they would read it, love it and publish it-according to him it was that simple. Well, my article came back with a letter from editor Anthony Timpone saying that they didn't accept unsolicited articles and that the magazine had an eight month moratorium on interviews at the moment. I called Anthony to find out how to summit an article in the future and he graciously gave me useful information on the do's and don'ts of sending an article to Fangoria. When I mentioned to Anthony that Bill George told me to just send it to them, he said," Oh yeah, Bill." That statement told me all I needed to know. You see, Bill has this wonderful(and I'm being facetious when I say this) philosophy of that if you throw enough things against the wall, one of them will eventually stick. Yeah. Right. No wonder I think he's a clod and a clown.
In any event, I contacted Gary Svelha to see if he'd be interested in publishing my interview and he replied he wanted to read it first. That was no big deal. What was kind of a big deal was when he asked Bill George if I made the interview up. Now, that pissed me off! For him to entertain for even a second that I would fake an interview just to see it in print was beyond belief. But I said nothing and the interview was published. I didn't see a dime for my efforts, but at least I was a published writer. So, that was pretty cool, although seeing a few bucks in my grubby little hand would've been ever cooler!
As for Bill Rebane, he's a filmmaker located in Wisconsin who was responsible for Monster A Go Go(originally titled Terror At Halfday), a film that was shelved when the money ran out. Hershell Gordon Lewis(Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs) eventually bought it, shot footage to connect the remainder of the unfinished film and released it to theatres. In 1975 Rebane's film The Giant Spider Invasion made a big splash grossing a whopping $13,0000 for the releasing company Group One while Rebane didn't see a plug nickle. Although Rebane hasn't made a film in over twenty five years, his legacy as a Hollywood outsider is assured. He made movies outside of the Hollywood system and had them released to either theatres or on video. As an independent filmmaker, Rebane played by his own rules and succeeded.
JV: Previous to your first feature film Monster A Go Go,what was your experience in filmmaking?
BR: Limited. I was scared to hell making that sucker. Now if you would believe this, I hadn't edited,shot, directed,produced or anything of that nature before. Didn't know that did you?(laughter)
JV: No I didn't. According to the book, The Amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis,you were a relative amateur at the time.
BR: Oh I absolutely was,without question. I think I was nineteen years old or something like that. However, I had a reasonably extensive background in television production both producing and directing at that age. I was involved in the production of the first 360 degree picture shot with one camera,projected with one projector,which was a revolutionary process at that time. I don't know if you remember Disney Circle-Rama. Circle-Rama was done with sixteen cameras and sixteen projectors. Well, we did the same thing with one camera and and one projector and achieved the same effect. Or I should say a more spectacular effect. That certainly was an involvement in motion pictures, but I was the promoter,I owned the American rights to it and everything. I decided one day I was going to make a feature. I went out and raised the money and set out to make a feature.
JV: What was the budget for Monster A Go Go before you ran out of money to finish it?
BR: I think we had a budget of $80,000. We started with $20,000,went to about $25,000 or $30,000,and then the last $12,000 or $15,000 wasn't there,so we had to stop production. We couldn't hold on to Pete Thompson(the scientist in the film) and Doc Stanford came in. Doc Stanford was a music writer,music producer and screenplay writer. He did "Fairy Tales" for Sinatra, and he wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen. To make a long story short,he came in, we rewrote the whole thing,and being short on money , he took the part of the scientist. We wrote him in as the brother of Pete Thompson. And that's how we changed the story. (On an interesting note: When I spoke with Herschell Gordon Lewis a few years earlier,Lewis claimed that he had the original actor remove his hair piece and he played his own brother.) We had a lot of good footage,and I mean a lot of good footage,considering the circumstances. When I did look at the picture ultimately,this is years ago that I saw the whole thing assembled,a good portion of it was not there. I mean the close ups, the medium shots, a lot of action stuff that was done in Chicago but was not in the picture. It ended up having to be cut anyway possible,I suppose.
JV: How did Herschell Gordon Lewis end up with the film?
BR: Herschell was a maverick feature producer at that time and had just finished Prime Time and one of the other pictures. He came in much later,come to think of it. Yes,he came in a few years later because we had the footage around. I started cutting it or recutting it,and that's when he came in and we made a deal.
JV: Did you know that Lewis turned your movie into a satire?
BR: I didn't know it at the time,no.
JV: Were you upset about it since your original film was intended to be serious?
BR: No, I was not upset. I had to close my eyes and turn away in shame. It came out not at all as we intended it to be. Upset is probably overstating it.
JV: I understand that you worked on a few of Lewis's films. What was it like to work with him?
BR: It was wham, bang,thank you ma'am: fast and furious. He's a very unique guy and was able to do everything from producing,raising money,to doing his own photography,doing his own sound, directing,editing- you name it. He was a very clever and talented guy. I'm sure if he would have chosen to do other types of pictures,he would have been very successful.
JV: What did you do between Monster A Go Go and Giant Spider Invasion because there seems to be a big gap?
BR: Oh, there's a big gap. (laughter) I did a lot of short subjects,which at the time was a big thing,including one that became quite popular,probably as popular as Giant Spider Invasion years later. It was called twist race,a musical which was sold to American International Pictures. We followed that one with Dance Craze.Then we did one called The Love of Stella and another one called All Fall Down. They were quite unique because they were all original; a lot of music, a lot of dancing,very colorful. We put the first ones together very fast. Twist Race was shot in one night,and of course, in 35mm,color,the whole pizazz. The original music and the story were created two nights previous to that. That particular one became quite popular because it was the first twist picture out. It played as a co-feature to Pocketful of Miracles,Frank Capra's picture,all over the country in first run theatres. Universal made an offer to buy it and get it nominated for the Academy Award. We couldn't meet the last play date. In other words, in order to qualify you have to play a key theatre in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York by a certain date, and we couldn't get into New York. It was close to the due date. But never the less,it enjoyed a great deal of success and made a lot of money. Now meanwhile, I went back to Europe,where I'm from originally,and I was in charge of production for Studio Bendesdorf for close to nine years. We did How I Won The War; Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang; Dollar with Goldy Hawn; and The Final Guns for Columbia Pictures. I was involved in that for two and a half years, as the executive producer and director of three one hour episodes. That was supposed to be the first roadshow picture or first mini-series type film. That picture was the turning point because it went on and on and on with lots of problems,and that made me return to the States.I was so sick of the business,I was never going to make another picture again.
JV: From there did you go on to make Giant Spider Invasion?
BR: That was the third picture that I did out of Wisconsin. The first one was Invasion from Inner Earth. It's getting a lot of television play all over the country,and here people keep calling me and telling me they saw it. That was done at the end of 1972.
JV: What was Invasion from Inner Earth about?
BR: That was a science-fiction type psychological drama made in northern Wisconsin. It's a psychological drama: four people lost in the wilderness being haunted by something that is coming form the inner earth, an alien type thing. Then we departed and did an NBC special on snowmobiling called The Roar of Snowmobiles. Then we came to the Spider picture.
JV: How were you able to do that kind of picture for only $350,000?
BR: Well, it was partly because of the geographic area. I mean, it's cheap to shoot here,and having the right story that was tailor made for the resources we had helped to keep the budget manageable. In the meantime, I had considerable amount of years in production ,in all phases of production,so I was able to use a small crew.
JV: So being in Wisconsin,you wouldn't have to use the SAG or any union crew when you make a film?
BR: We did. Giant Spider Invasion was a SAG picture. It had to be simply because of the names involved.
JV: Was Giant Spider Invasion your biggest film financially as well as being the most widely released theatrically?
BR: Absolutely. It was one of the fifty top grossing films of that year. It was on the charts as one of the all time rental champions. The last public quote I heard about it was on the Johnny Carson show, I think,somewhere around "77.
JV: Since the film gave you legs as an independent filmmaker,did Group One release any more of your movies?
BR: Group One made all the money on the Spider picture. We landed up pretty poor. As a matter of fact,this year,1987,is the year where we're supposed to cash in our non recourse notes, and it was a tax shelter to boot. The distributor made one hell of a lot of money. Anyway, the figure Carson quoted was about $13,000,000,and for '75-'76 those were big numbers.
JV: Since you didn't end up with very much money,did you ever go into litigation with Group One?
BR: We came close to it. We did audits which didn't go anywhere,which cost a lot of money. After a year or two years of hassles and what have you,unless you have the resources to keep fighting a lawsuit for long periods of time,it's senseless. At the time, I wasn't as well versed on distribution and I think we made a bad deal. We probably should've been more cautious from the beginning. But everybody made deals like that in those days. You didn't have the foreign markets to go to; you didn't have the independence you have today.
JV: At any time during your career did you ever four wall( the term four wall is where a filmmaker or releasing company would show their film one theatre at a time) one of your films?
BR: Yes we did. As a matter of fact,we did a little bit of that with Invasion from Inner Earth. We released it initially ourselves,the Key International picked it up in Denver,and then American National ended up with it.
JV: This brings me to my next question. As an independent,do you find it harder to deal with distributors than if you were connected to a major studio?
BR: It used to be that way. Things have changed considerably since 1979-1980. They have changed in particular since the foreign market and foreign video became strong. The Star Wars pictures changed a lot of things. It changed things for the low budget producer because suddenly the American public was looking at millions of dollars worth of special-effects,production values and what have you. The small picture that could've been released independently theatrically or even by the producer if he had the right backing,all of the sudden,somewhere around '79,you couldn't do that any more. The pictures that we did up until 1980-81 suddenly were no longer placeable theatrically,because theatrically, the demand was different.
JV: Since the demands for theatrical films became different,wouldn't your films wind up playing the drive-in circuit?
BR: Absolutely. But that was always the strength for these little pictures,the drive-in market.
JV: Now that the drive-ins are dying,mainly because of spiraling real estate costs and the popularity of the VCR,what is your opinion of the demise of the drive-in theatre?
BR: Well, video's done it. Let's face it: cable, satellite,the video market.but thank God for the video market for the independent. The theatrical market is awful tough today,especially for the small picture. If you make a picture and it happens to have legs,and you think,shit,this will go theatrically,sure you can do something theatrically. But if it falls short of that,thank God you've got the international market. Without that,we would be in tough shape. And I mean we,all of the independents.
JV: By the way, I saw your film The Alpha Incident on TV recently. I thought it was a tight,suspenseful picture. Was that film fairly easy to make, or did you have any trouble during the production?
BR: No, that was a pleasure. I kind of enjoyed that. It had a bit of a challenge connected with it,because it's very difficult to sustain four people for ninety minutes in two rooms. It was a step toward the type of thing that I wanted to do and it did enjoy a pretty good theatrical run. I don't know if you know this,but Alpha Incident played as a co-feature to Star Wars in tons of theatres throughout
JV: As you continue to make films,do the budgets increase significantly?
BR: It varies. You've got to remember, since I've been in Wisconsin, I've been splitting my time building up our studio complex here. We have probably the most unique production complex in the country. The name of the studio complex is the Shooting Ranch Studio.
JV: Because you are an independent filmmaker, is raising the financial backing for your projects difficult?
BR: That's always the most difficult thing of the whole business. You know, it's easy to make a picture,but to get a decent distribution deal that returns money to the investors ultimately is extremely difficult. This is a universal problem. This is not my problem; I think it's every independent's problem. When you begin to have distributors go broke,they have your picture and they go bankrupt.Suddenly you don't have a picture. You have problems paying back your investors, therefore,it's difficult to get more money for another film. I have a philosophy that if distributors would play ball with the producers and do their thing properly,some of these problems would've been eliminated a long time ago. But you just can't expect that because of the nature of the beast. Of all the pictures I've done, they all have grossed decent or big amounts of money. They've all made money for the distributors. None of them landed up on a shelf and was buried. That's unfortunate, because some of that success should've been passed on to the investors.
JV: Did you ever consider doing what Tom Laughlin,who made the Billy Jack series, did: set up your own distribution company?
BR: We did. And as a matter of fact, it started with The Capture of Bigfoot. We released it initially ourselves. As a matter of fact,right out of here, we got over five hundred bookings nationally. We started with one hundred prints,but the ongoing cost of advertising was too humongous. So finally we made a deal with another distributor; distribution takes more capital than production does. And as of late,since 1980-81,we've been marketing foreign ourselves. We've done reasonably,if not very well,in that area.
JV: A lot of regional filmmakers end up moving to Los Angeles because they think that's where the action is as far as movie-making is concerned. Have you ever considered moving your base of operations to Los Angeles?
BR: Nope. Never. Now,that is not to say that I would not make a picture in L.A. But I certainly wouldn't want to get into that rat race. That sounds kind of stubborn, but there is too much potential here to grow with and you can't beat the costs.
JV: Especially when using a union crew in Los Angeles you can't bring in a film for less than two or three hundred thousand dollars.
BR: Besides, there's a tremendous waste out there. I don't want to go on making pictures for a couple of hundred thousand dollars or three hundred thousand dollars. But even if you make a picture for a million,I mean, it would have to cost two million there, and I doubt very much that you could with that enhancement of dollars equally enhance the production value there. Certainly some things call for large expenditures. I mean, Hollywood is Hollywood. But in most cases it's just a total waste.
JV: As someone who's seen the ins and outs of independent filmmaking and distribution,what advice would you give to a filmmaker just coming into the business?
BR: I suppose the first thing is to make sure he's got a good script; a good gut feeling about it. Know the market place; you've got to know what is selling. What are the ingredients that are making it today? Then either find a screenplay that has all of those ingredients or tailor make one. You know, nobody takes advice in this business(laughter).
JV: Are you planning to make any more films in the horror/science-fiction genre?
BR: We are. Oh absolutely,we just finished one. I think it's a great horror story with Tiny Tim. It's a picture called Blood Harvest and it's a classic horror story. It's a bit unusual because of his character. He is marvelous in it,absolutely marvelous. It's a big looking picture. I'm very proud of that one. It'll be released somewhere around March.
JV: One of your films that I'm curious about is The Game. What's that film about?
BR: That's the one I don't want to talk about.(laughter) No,no, God, no. There's two pictures I don't want to talk about at. One is Monster A Go Go and the other one is The Game.
JV: Well then,we'll just skip that one entirely. (laughter).
BR: There's nothing I can do about it if somebody sees it. Listen, whaddya want for $25,000,right? That beats any of Hershell's budgets, I just want you to know. What might be significant,which always boggles peoples minds,when you think in terms of The Game for that kind of cash, Demons of Ludlow was made for $120,000. The Devonsville Terror was $165,000. Alpha Incident,that was a high budget picture,was $220,000. I think the the biggest problem we've had on our pictures,if I may mention that,is that when you're on these low budgets,you have to get actors from your local area. That's something that I'm going to try not to repeat too often,because you're stuck with a certain quality of talent. I think these are the biggest shortcomings. Then maybe the other shortcoming,if any, is that I'm not a blood and guts man for blood and guts sake. Distributors are always accusing me of not putting enough flesh,blood and guts into my pictures. My films are a bit mild. So in Blood Harvest,we gave them the full nine yards.
JV: Let's say if someone were to give you a very large budget, I'm talking millions of dollars,what kind of film would you make?
BR: I have some pet projects on the shelf that I would love to do.I have a love story; I have a teenage action picture which it looks like we're going to be doing anyway next summer.That's a contemporary story totally removed from the horror/science-fiction genre. And there are some large scale projects which we have been kicking around. But at the moment we're taking it a step at a time.We have a line up of two to three pictures for the next year that were going to be in the $400,000 to$1,000,000 category.