Herschell Gordon Lewis: My interview With The Godfather of Gore.
Mention the name Herschell Gordon Lewis and you immediately think of gore films such as Blood Feast,2000 Maniacs and The Wizard of Gore,to name a few in the Lewis cannon of blood and gore mini epics; films that were made on micro budgets,complete with technical errors and mostly bad acting. Relegated to small Mom and Pop theatres who couldn't afford major Hollywood product,these movies kept the independent movie houses in business and were enjoyed by patrons seeking a different kind of movie going experience. More importantly, they made money for the films investors.
Lewis wasn't the first producer to include gore in his pictures; Hammer Films and the independent studios in the fifties and sixties treated film goers to scenes of blood and violence. Lewis however,upped the ante,so to speak,by showing his audience graphic disembowelment in an unflinching manner. Since the mainstream studio's wouldn't make this type of entertainment(although they would eagerly jump on the band wagon over a decade later ) these films never played a major theatrical venue. Although Lewis is known primarily for his "blood and guts" movies, he has also produced and directed nudie films, kiddie matinee features and mainstream dramas.
I myself never saw one of Lewis's films until after I interviewed him in 1984, so I had no idea of the quality of his output. Upon seeing a few of his outings I came away with the impression that although his films are entertaining on a certain level, they were nothing to write home about. One of his films, The Wizard of Gore was almost repellent in it's depiction of girls being mutilated. I can honestly say I won't be watching it again. That is not my idea of entertaining cinema. But he does have his fans,so it's true what they say: there's no accounting for taste.
The interview took place,ironically enough, on Halloween 1984 and was originally published in a French magazine called Mad Movies(there's an interesting story behind that, but it's too long to go into here.) Lewis proved to be both engaging and articulate as we discussed his career as a filmmaker. At the time of the interview, Lewis was involved in direct marketing and hadn't been behind the camera since 1972, although at the time he was discussing with producer Jimmy Maslon plans direct Blood Feast 2. The plans fell through and Lewis never made the film. The movie was eventually directed by Jackie Kong and was released to video as Blood Diner.
JV: How do you feel about being known as The Godfather of Gore?
HGL: I feel great. I like the appellation. I suppose there might be more classic ways of being remembered in the film business. But I'm flattered and honored because I don't know of anybody else in the film business,who with budgets as small as mine, was able to have any impact on the industry. And every time I see a contemporary horror film, I can envision the descendant type relationship between that film and one of the early ones that I made. So I'm certainly not unhappy being known as the Godfather of Gore and I'm delighted to have that type of recognition.
JV: When Blood Feast was first released, did you anticipate the audiences positive reaction to it?
HGL: Yes, I expected the audience to react to this picture. I knew that the film had startling elements in it that had never been on a screen before. What I didn't anticipate was the way the film took hold and spawned an entire genre of film that hadn't existed before. Very odd. In retrospect, I can see the logical progression which reflects back again on the first question you asked. The logical progression is that when people in the film business see success,it's quite logical that they would gravitate in that direction the way iron filings gravitate to a magnet. That's true in any business. Someone has success in personal computers,at once there's a host of personal computer companies. I had expected Blood Feast to do business. I knew from what we had in our editing room,as we cut that film, that it wasn't an ordinary film;that people couldn't ignore it. I knew that we had an impact far beyond the cost of the film. And I knew working with David Friedman,who was an excellent exploitation man, that we had a campaign that would bring people in to theatre. You must understand,as I'm sure you do, that you can always force that first audience into the theatre. You simply spend enough money to get them in there. Once they hit the street, then you're at the mercy of word of mouth. That's why some pictures with big campaigns open well and then die. That's why some pictures with poor campaigns open poorly and then swell to a crescendo. Example: Harold and Maude,which is still being shown as a cult film. It had almost no campaign whatever. Some films that have no campaign and nothing much to talk about have no chance at all. I'm still surprised at some of the titles the major companies put on their pictures. The titles would keep people out. Anyway, I'm not sure the reaction to Blood Feast was universally positive. There were, as we had anticipated, a lot of negative reaction. We weren't too concerned because you can always express your displeasure by not going to the theatre,or by advising your friends not to go. But in general, we did expect that the film would have some position in that years group of releases.
JV: Out of all of your films you've made,why are 2000 Maniacs and A Taste of Blood your personal favorites?
HGL: I'm glad you know that. My answer is simpler than the question and that is that they are well acted,they are credibly acted. We didn't just run film through the camera for those two pictures.The acting in 2000 Maniacs pleased me, when one considers that was our second gore film and the first one that was truly scripted. I think we did very well with it because our budget wasn't that much larger than Blood Feast. With A Taste of Blood, I had a film in which the actors were universally professional. Which I admit, tongue in cheek, was somewhat unusual for me. I had good locations. I had excellent co-operation from various places where we wanted to shoot film which showed production value, such as the docks with the big casket coming on and off the boat. A Taste of Blood runs two hours,the longest of my films. I couldn't bring myself to cut much of it and I don't think that it suffers from being overlong because the acting and the action do blend so very well. It's well edited.
JV: One the other hand, why is Color Me Blood Red the least favorite of your films?
HGL: Two reasons. One, I think the cutting on that film is atrocious. I say that competitively perhaps because I had nothing to do with the cutting of Color Me Blood Red. As you know,film history being what it is, there are few secrets. Dave Friedman and I had sued Stan Kolhberg,a third partner, for misappropriation of funds. This was after we had shot Color Me Blood Red,but not cut it. Dave subsequently settled with Kolhberg,moved to California, and he, before moving to California, turned the cutting over to a commercial film cutter, who cut it the way you'd cut an industrial film. It had no wallop at all. To top it off, they added a music track which was foolish. It was the kind of music track you would put on The History of Tulip Bulbs. It was purely canned music. And that had no power at all. The film as shot, I felt, had a pretty good chance because it was the first film that had any sense of humor at all. As shot it was better than as cut.
JV: Did you produce an obscure science-fiction film called Monster A Go Go under the name Sheldon Seymour?
HGL: Yes and no. Monster A Go Go is the film produced by a man named Bill Rebane titled Terror At Halfday. Halfday oddly being a small town town north west of Chicago. Rebane was unable to complete the picture in glorious black and white. I'd bought it just as footage. He had exposed 80,000 feet of film and I finished it. There wasn't enough to make a feature out of. The story of that picture is fairly well known. I shot a thousand feet of close ups of hands and telegrams and just feet walking and shuffling and people getting in and out of cars just to tie the segments together. And the film was impossible,so we couldn't release it with the name Terror in it. Strange as it may seem to some people who know that we made low budget films, we had some integrity. Certainly, we had integrity of title.And there was no point putting Terror on a film,the only terror of which, was the terror of having to sit through it. So we made it into a satire,which it had been unintentionally under the original production banner. And we called it Monster Go Go. Certainly I wasn't going to put my name on that, so I used our stock name Sheldon Seymour. As I think you know, I came to the conclusion that everybody in the film business was named either Sheldon or Seymour. So I thought if I used the name Sheldon Seymour, or as we sometimes use Seymour Sheldon, we'd reverse the names,everybody in the business could identify with that character.
JV: Many film enthusiasts cite bad acting as one of the weakness's in your films. Do you think using well known actors would have made your films any better?
HGL: Certainly. Now, I don't want to go with the word "well known" in quotation marks. I would rather use the word professional, because many well known actors have no professionalism. No one ever claimed that Marilyn Monroe could act or that Tab Hunter could act. These were simply bodies with campaigns attached to them. When I did use good actors as in Two Thousand Maniacs,as in A Taste of Blood; the films were better. I don't agree that bad acting was universal to our pictures. Moonshine Mountain had very good acting in it. The film with Claude king, Year of The Yahoo, had good acting in it. The difference was not necessarily in the acting,but the amount of production time. That's strictly a budgetary matter. Give me several million dollars and I'll remake Blood Feast and you would not recognize the acting. Nor would you recognize the ration between cost and return,because that wouldn't improve that much. One of the realities of the film business is economics. And that enters into the mix. I never set out to win an award; that wasn't the goal. And when I see films lionized for acting talent, I often see films that don't bring that good of a return at the box-office. Then the critics mourn," Oh my. Why wasn't it that this marvelous film didn't do any business and had to wind up on cable?" The answer is that it didn't have the exploitation values. It's a decision someone makes. No one ever looks at Star Wars or Return of The Jedi and says, " That has good acting, that has bad acting," Acting doesn't enter into it. This girl, Eddie fishers daughter, I don't recall her first name(Carrie Fisher),who was the star of that trilogy of science-fiction films(The Star Wars series);would anyone call her an actress? She is simply a vehicle. In that instance,she is fortunate,all of them in that group of films,are fortunate to be surrounded by dazzling,expensive effects. I didn't have those effects,so my actors had to stand on their own.
JV: Some independent filmmakers, who work with very small budgets, will shoot their films in 16mm and then enlarge them to 35mm before releasing them theatrically. Since production costs have risen dramatically in the past ten or so years, if you were making Blood Feast or 2000 Manics today, would you film them in 16mm as a method of cutting costs?
HGL: No. I don't think you cut that much cost. You cut that much cost if you are working for Walt Disney Productions on a nature film and you're going to put yourself in a rabbit hole over the winter and expose 400,000 feet of 16mm film from which you select 5,000 feet you then blow up to 35mm.With the kind of shooting ratio's I had, I'd rather shoot in 35mm and avoid the grain crawl. I grant you that with liquid gate process there are some improvements in blowing up 16mm to 35mm.I challenge anyone to blow up 16mm to 35mm and have as good quality a printing negative as one would have from shooting 35mm original. Furthermore, I'm more inclined to shoot in 35mm because since I shot my films, the best improvement in film production has been lighter weight 35mm production equipment. I would no longer have to haul that Mitchell with it's cast iron blimp over hilltops. So I don't agree with the later day Saints of this business who say," Shoot in 16mm and blow it up to 35mm." What that means to me in English is," I don't have 35mm equipment." It doesn't mean," I'm making a better picture".
JV: I heard that you play a small part in A Taste of Blood. Is that truth or rumor?
HGL: Truth. We have a scene in A Taste of Blood in which we have a cockney sailor who is suppose to say," Evening, matey. Ain't a fit night for the devil." And I found a perfect English Britisher who could affect a cockney accent and had a bristling moustache. His line as it came out was (imitating a cockney accent)," Evening,matey. Ain't a fit night for the devil." Which only he and I could do properly. Well, naturally as often happens, he decided he didn't want to make his fifty dollars,or whatever we were paying him and he didn't show up to shoot. I had a boat I had to be off in two hours. Well, in the wonderful world of make do,which is part of low budget film making, there are two rules: One is,you do not panic. The other is, if one thing won't work you try something else. Which is what we did. I had no one else within four blocks who could affect a cockney accent,so I was it. One of the crew members who had hair all the way down his back,very agreeably cut off a hunk and I made a moustache out of that,which was put on with Stein's spirit gum. I put a stocking cap over my head and played the role. I did not do it in order to be a Hitchcock. I did it because the actor hired to do it didn't show up.
JV: Another story making the rounds is about an album released in the South with you playing the theme from 2000 Maniacs on the banjo. Is there such an album available?
HGL: There's no album. There was a record. Paul Champion,who was a fine banjo player, played the banjo. I was the voice on the recording of Two Thousand Maniacs and I'm also the voice on the theme music that opens the picture. I didn't play the banjo. I think part of this folklore comes from some horsing around we did when we shot a film called This Stuff'll Kill Ya in Oklahoma City. A man named Bill Mays, who ran a country and western ballroom,had me over there one night. As a joke, I got up with a guitar in my hand and eefed. Eeffing is a singing technique in which you make noises as you breathe in and out. It's almost a lost art. But I'm an eefer. I spent about twenty minutes up on the stage playing the guitar and eefing and singing some strange songs that I had written for various films. He recorded it and I don't even have any idea what happened to that recording. I kind of wish I had a copy. But the Two Thousand Maniacs recording also, I think, is lost in history somewhere.
JV: Since you've not only directed your films, but also have also done the camera work, do you consider yourself primarily a director or a cameraman?
HGL: I don't think it's possible to unscramble the egg. I don't always start on the camera. Usually, the film starts with somebody else on the camera and out of exasperation I wind up on the camera and the original cameraman winds up as assistant cameraman. Not unhappily because the pace had picked up. A director who doesn't know what shot he wants isn't really a film director, he's a stage director. One reason we were able to survive in this dog eat dog business is because we didn't have to shoot each scene thirty one times. We would shoot it, make our insert shots and know what we wanted in front so that we wouldn't have to say," Oh boy,we better cover it another way. I'm not sure we can cut this film." Furthermore, there were some shots in which the cameraman simply didn't want to be on the camera. When things were flying at the camera as we had in Gruesome Twosome or we had a demolition derby and all kinds of odd things coming smack dab at the camera. I felt immortal. I didn't think I was going to die with a lens in my eye. Another factor was, frankly, I was very good on the camera. I could load it faster than anybody. I could fire it without shaking like I had Parkinson's Disease. But I didn't feel that I was a cameraman. I did camera work,in fact, for other producers. But I did that in between my own pictures just to make sure that I hadn't lost any abilities I had on camera, the way that someone will try to speak a foreign language in between times of being in the country. Which I wish I had done on my recent trip to France, which pointed out to me how much French I had forgotten. Yet, after I'd been there about a week it began to come back. Same thing is true on the camera.
JV: Do you think a movie's quality relies more on the directors budget or his ability to utilize what he has at his immediate disposal?
HGL: I think the movies quality,using the term as it's often used,that is production value, depends on the budget. I don't think it has anything to do with what the director has at his disposal unless he is,as I was, forced to improvise and forced to beg what he normally would pay for. Now, that only applies to low budget pictures. After a certain point is reached, there is no such thing as the director having something at his immediate disposal. Because he had surrounded himself with people who have the where with all to pay for locations. To pay for automobile rentals or to get them on a different basis from saying," Hey, do you want your car in a movie?" I don't think the question is germane above budgets of,I guess in today's market place, about half a million dollars.
JV: In the film Moonshine Mountain there were a couple of gore scenes you removed because the film was being shown to family audiences. What did the deleted scenes show?
HGL: The main scene I pulled out of that, right at the so called World Premiere, we had nine World Premieres on Moonshine Mountain in various markets. But the first legitimate World Premiere was in Charlotte, North Carolina where I took out the stomping scene. That scene had a man, a huge lout about six feet nine inches tall,weighed about three hundred pounds;he had on hobnail boots and he took these federal agents and cracked their heads together and stomped them to death. We had a shirt which was stuffed with pig ribs and various glop. That boot came scrunching on the shirt. We had slit the buttons so they'd pop open exposing all these innards and it was a pretty grotesque effect. It was one of our better gore effects, but I guess it didn't belong in Moonshine Mountain which wasn't really a gore film. When I saw all those station wagons full of kids coming into the theatre, I knew where the scene was, I cut that film; I knew every foot of Moonshine Mountain. I felt it was better to take that out than to have a bunch of angry parents saying," Why did I bring my children to this theatre?" You must keep faith with your audience and the campaign hadn't tipped them off that there was going to be such a scene in there.
JV: A lot of your films were released mainly in the South. In what way do you feel the South's reception of your films differ from the North?
HGL: First of all, I made a lot of hillbilly pictures and those are well received in the South. I also feel that people in the North,and I'm not trying to draw any geographic inferences because you're talking about tens of millions of people, but generally speaking, people in the North are more at the mercy of the urban newspaper critics than people in the South. People in the South, at least in those days, made up their own minds about a picture. We didn't play Radio City Music Hall; it wasn't that kind of film.We were in a different ambiance and I reveled in it. Yes, with a picture like She Devils on Wheels we had a thirty five theatre break in Chicago. But that was rare. And even when we opened in thirty five theatres, none of them was a downtown theatre. We didn't have that kind of release. Since we were independent filmmakers, I think the market place still has that geographic differential between North and South in independent film making. Although the lines have blurred a great deal. If I had my druthers, I'd druther have a small town in the South anytime where the people deal in their own reactions. Where they are influenced by how much the film entertained them and not by what Roger Ebert thinks of it.
JV: When you started out as a filmmaker, shooting industrial films, what were some of the things you learned to prepare you for entry into the feature film market?
HGL: Well, first of all, I learned how to cut film. A big,big thing to learn. A lot of people think they know the film business because they know how to yell," Roll sound." or at the end of a scene they'll yell cut, Cut." They are deluding themselves and their films invariably will cost substantially more to make. I learned how to light set. I see people yet today who take a day to light a simple set with two people sitting and talking. I laugh at that because there's no challenge. I know how to light a set flat. I know how to light a set for mood lighting. I know how to light a set for a romantic dinner setting. I know how to light a set for the evil that might occur where the shadows have to be long. All these things I learned shooting industrial films. I also learned a certain discipline; that you must get a certain number of feet of film finished within a certain period of time. No one's going to wait with a television commercial that must go on the air. No one's going to wait with a film for the post office department; they have it in release as of the first of the year. You can't indulge your own ego. I think it's a good training ground,but I don't recommend it as a training ground when you're going to be dealing with actors.
JV: During the years you made films, did you ever read any of the movie critics reviews and if they were negative, did they affect you in any way?
HGL: I read any reviews that came my way. It affected me if the review referred to something that I could control for the next film. When we had negative reviews, and I must tell you that is another piece of folklore that I resent just a little, because these things are taken out of context by people who want to think the the popularity of the film was at war with the critical reaction to them. That isn't the case at all. We had negative reviews, yes. So did Francis Ford Coppola. We never had a review as devastating as Heaven's Gate which cost what, Thirty Seven Million dollars? When a review referred to something I felt we could correct, I took it very seriously. Because no one can operate in a vacuum and no filmmaker should. I won't say won't because they do it all the time,but no filmmaker should play God and say," Public be damned. I know everything." I don't know everything. I didn't know everything then and I probably never will know everything. I just know instinctively and also from aggressive study of the marketplace what might succeed in a theatre. Usually,the reviews that were negative referred to the grizzly aspects and how could I accept that criticism when that is exactly what we set out to do. In a sense, our success was better because the reviews pointed up the goriness of what we were shooting. That's what we were doing. That's why I can answer the very first question you asked about being known as The Godfather of Gore with pride. They hadn't come across this before. It's not as though they didn't know what to do about it. But it is a circumstance which yet exists today. People fear the unknown to some extent. They were outraged by seeing on the screen scenes which they never thought they would see on the screen.
JV: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who want to break into the feature film market?
HGL: I'm the wrong person to ask that question of because I feel that an aspiring,young filmmaker should not indulge his egomaniacal fantasy's, but should rather make films that theatres can and will play. Shooting scenes which are exploitable,thinking in terms of coming attractions,I call then coming atrocities,the trailer, as he makes this film thinking of what he might show on television as a teaser campaign to bring people into the theatres.
Throughout his production thinking of establishing himself as a producer who made money for the people who backed his film. If that producer is self financing and has not raised ten cents from outside sources, then please ignore that advice. But if we're dealing with other peoples money, then I beg who ever follows these footsteps to have some respect for the American dollar which makes his posturing and strutting possible.
Time after time, I see the experimental films which don't have any purpose other than to establish the filmmaker as an experimenter. And I think that's not only wrong, I think it's an insult,an outrage,an annoyance to the film world in general because these are films that can't make money and can only be used by the producer himself to show his friends," Hey, I made a film and look how I hand held this camera." My advise to an aspiring filmmaker condensed into one sentence would be: make a film someone will go to see and enjoy. The trick in making films of this type is to have the audience feel they got their money's worth. And it isn't all that difficult if you can remove yourself one step from the arena and look at it from the view point of someone sitting in a seat having paid two dollars to get in.
JV: In Chicago you owned and operated a place called The Blood Shed Theatre which showed exploitation movies and live horror shows. What was the inspiration behind this unusual venture?
HGL: Well, we had it in Olde Town, which was an arty section of town. There was no room in the city for another conventional film theatre. I had the knowledge of how to draw a knife across some one's neck and have blood spurt out without actually damaging that individual. It was quite a logical thing to have a different kind of theatre. The theatre was a success,even though we didn't have enough seats in there to make it truly profitable. It was a success until we had trouble in Olde Town of an ethnic nature, which literally drove us and some other people out of the area. It was a noble experiment. I had at the time two old Holmes incandescent 35mm projectors which were perfect for showing on a screen that size. We had about two hundred seats in there. It was fun. I wasn't there every night,but I had a loyal crew who were. We had a waiting list of people who wanted to be the live vampire. We'd simply stop the projectors and send them out at random into the audience and they'd slit each others throats and stab each other. One would bury an axe in the other ones head and then they'd come back in chortling and laughing and on we'd go with the show. The market place could use on of those theatres today, I do think.
JV: I read that you've agreed to direct Blood Feast II. Have you started production on it yet?
HGL: No, I haven't and I have not agreed, as of this moment,to direct it. I have a profound respect for Jimmy Maslon who owns the rights and is one of the authors of the script. But we haven't yet reached agreement. I'm not entirely sure that film will ever be made,but it could be made. That's not the only source of interest at the moment in my making another picture. But as of today,today being October 31, Halloween,a very good and logical day to do this interview,1984, I have no firm agreement with anybody to direct another picture.
JV: How would you like to be remembered in the annals of film history?
HGL: I don't have any choice there. I shall be remembered as the Godfather of Gore. How would anybody be remembered? How many people are there whose memories are linked with veneration such as D.W. Griffith and even he is under attack because of his racist film Birth of A Nation. Hitchcock, the image is tarnished. Cecil B. De Mille,a tyrant with mixed reviews of his actual talents. How many giants are there on the earth? I'm quite content with the little niche I've carved in the annals of film history. And I don't see it changing. I am as I said earlier pleased that so many recognize it and are following,
JV: My last question to you is, what is your reaction to your recent popularity among horror movie fans?
HGL: My reaction in two words? Thank you.