Writer, producer, director Jeff Burr has been behind some of the most inventive horror movies from the last twenty years. He gained notoriety in 1990 when he unleashed (well tried to anyway) Leatherface, the third instalment in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. Recently on Horror you may have caught his movies Werewolf Reborn and Devil's Den. Jeff has also made memorable contributions to the long running Puppet Master franchise and produced some pretty cool kids TV shows so we thought it was time we tracked this man from Georgia down to see exactly what inspires him to make such a diverse range of movies. In this, the first part of an exclusive interview, Jeff talks about his early career and his time with Vincent Price.
HC: Were you a horror fan when you were growing up?
JB: Yes, I was a big horror fan growing up. I totally got into the genre through Shock Theater, which aired on Channel 9 out of Chattanooga, TN and featured Dr. Shock and his pet bat Dingbat. Dr. Shock was a guy named Tommy Reynolds, and Dingbat was a puppet operated and voiced by Dan East. They showed all the Universal 30's and 40's horror package, and I fell in love with those films. They also showed stuff like The Thing, The Giant Claw, and stuff from the 60's like the Philippines John Ashley Blood Island movies, etc. I also would seek out any horror/Sci-Fi film in the theatre, and saw many many films at the Wink Theater, the Capri Theater and the Cherokee Drive-In. It was a great experience going to films in those days, as you knew that if you didn’t see the film in the theatre, you might not get a chance again for years, and then it would be on TV, cut up! Some horror/Sci-Fi stuff that made a big impression on me were Phantom Of The Paradise, Phase IV, Equinox, Land That Time Forgot, 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (which I saw in the '75 reissue) King Kong (which I saw in the '76 reissue before the DeLaurentis version came out) Silent Running, 2001 and on TV, Five Million Years To Earth, The Time Machine, The Conqueror Worm, too many to mention! And one of the most evocative theatre experiences I had was in early 1979, when I was in high school, the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga showed Citizen Kane, and I went nuts. I had read about that film, but had never seen it, and then seeing a great print in a big theatre was magical. Other guys who really influenced me were Jerry Lewis, because I loved his films, but also because his book on filmmaking (The Total Filmmaker) was the first book on filmmaking I ever read, and it was magical (in the pre-internet days) to actually see what a real script looked like, etc etc!
HC: Did you have a favourite director?
JB: I don’t know if I had a favourite director when I was growing up, but certainly I loved all the James Bond films, all the Clint Eastwood westerns and action films, Burt Reynolds films from the 70's probably just what you'd expect a boy from Dalton, Georgia to like! The town I grew up in was about 20,000 population, so we didn’t get some of the more "prestige" movies sometimes, but Chattanooga was about 30 miles away, and on very rare occasions, Atlanta was about 100 miles away. Even though I loved horror and Sci-Fi films, I also loved almost any other genre too...but I do remember suffering when my mom told me to come with her to see A Star Is Born with Barbara Streisand... I read about all the directors in magazines (when I could find them) like Castle Of Frankenstein and The Monster Times, which I always preferred to Famous Monsters. Although Famous Monsters always had the best covers! So, I certainly knew who Roger Corman was, I loved his Poe movies and Little Shop Of Horrors, I of course knew who Stanley Kubrick was, as I saw 2001 as a very little kid and it totally has burned itself on my brain for the rest of my life. That is one movie that I will drop everything to see on a big screen!!! But of course in those days (the 70's) it was a lot harder to find out things about movies if you lived in a small town, nothing like today. And I would have to say that I knew and loved Spielberg's work, because I saw Duel when it first aired, and it riveted me, and of course I loved Jaws and Close Encounters too.
HC: Were your family supportive of your decision to go into the movie business?
JB: My parents were supportive...both of them had a creative side to them, and they both appeared in community theater in Dalton. I vividly remember the thrill of being around backstage on a play when it was in rehearsal, and seeing the sets built, etc. So that had to have an influence on me, and all the people in my family, my grandparents, my uncles, etc were good storytellers and when we got to see them at Christmas or whenever it was always fascinating to hear their stories, of World War 1-2, etc. My mom also had a radio show in Dalton called Coffee Time, and she would interview all kinds of people. As a matter of fact, I got to interview Robert Vaughn and James Francicus because of her. She set it up through her station, and Robert Vaughn was doing a play in Atlanta, and I was a huge fan of his, so I got to interview him backstage. And Francicus was in Chattanooga doing a celebrity golf tournament. Of course I bent his ear about Valley Of The Gwangi! Also, with most people, when you have a hobby as a kid, the enthusiasm dissipates as you get older, but with me, when I started making little Regular 8mm movies in the backyard, with neighbourhood kids and my brother, it only got more intense the more I did it. So, I am one of the lucky people that found out very early in life what he wanted to do, and was able to pursue it. Of course there have been many bumps in the road, but I owe a lot to my parents early support...by that I mean that they never once said "Oh, that is a ridiculous idea...a film director? From Dalton? Get serious!" Or anything like that. And, my brother was always supportive too, he was a movie fan and could figure out great ways to rig certain things for special effects in my Super 8mm movies, he would act in some of the films, he would turn me on to films I hadn’t seen (he was a few years older), etc.
HC: Your first directing job was on the movie Divided We Fall which you co-directed with Kevin Meyer. Were you nervous and did you have any artistic differences?
JB: Well, Divided We Fall started as a student project at the University of Southern California. It was made in the winter/spring/summer of 1982, and premiered at USC Norris Theater in November of 1982. It was an incredibly ambitious, epic Civil War tale, running about 30 minutes long, shot in black and white with no sync dialogue. Kevin Meyer was an incredibly talented guy who I met in a class at school in fall of 1981. We teamed up to make this film, and I have to say it was a great partnership all the way, and in many ways it still might be both of our best films! We did everything...write, produce, direct, edit, photograph, etc. Certainly one of my best experiences making a film. The film won many awards around the world, and a clip from it can be seen on the American DVD of Straight Into Darkness, in the documentary made by Dave Parker. The film featured John Agar, who was a joy to work with, (and he hung in with the project over several months) Nick Guest, who was a blast (and I worked with him again on Puppet Master 5) David Cloud, who was a really talented guy who is now a teacher, Willard Pugh (who I worked with many times later and he also did The Color Purple, Robocop 2, etc) and two future "Leatherface" alumni...R.A. Mihailoff and Michael Shamus Wiles. Courtney Joyner did special effects makeup (he was the co-writer of From A Whisper To A Scream) and Will Huston and Mike Malone were production assistants (they were integral parts of the production of from a whisper). Kevin Meyer went on to do some thrillers for the producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, and he wrote the studio film A Smile Like Yours with Greg Kinnear. Of course we had some differences, and we have somewhat different sensibilities, but we meshed on that film and as I say, it may be the best film with our names on it so far! We worked from January 1982 to November 1982 on the film, and dropped out of school to finish it. We broke a lot of rules, and pretty much did what John Carpenter had done with the short film Dark Star, i.e. do things your way and alienate most of the faculty! The only difference is that he had the foresight to expand it into a feature, and that is what we should have done! Of course you realize this in retrospect. But I have great memories and feelings on the making of that movie, and want to repeat that experience, meaning how the film was made. In a lot of ways, Straight Into Darkness was a very similar experience. But, Divided We Fall won a lot of awards, but it really didn’t do that much for our careers right away. It did a little later, as it was a great thing to show potential investors for my first feature.
HC: The next project you directed was the anthology movie The Offspring starring the legendary Vincent Price. How did you get him involved?
JB: We got Vincent Price involved with the film by first going to his house (we got his address from a celebrity address service, such services don’t exist anymore in the wake of anti-stalking laws). We knocked on his door, he answered, he actually invited us in, and we talked for a bit and gave him the script. All true. He had every right to throw us off his property, tell us to submit the script to his agent, or that he wasn’t interested! But he was truly gracious and charming. So, he read the script, thought it was good but it was the type of film he was avoiding at that time in his life, and that was that, or so we thought! Months later, we had shot the stories of the film and were preparing to do the linking sequence, which was always planned to do in Los Angeles. I thought that it would be great to have Max von Sydow in the film, so I tracked down his agent, and his agent Walter Kohner reads the script and says Max won’t do it but he has the perfect client for me...VINCENT PRICE!!!! So, that's how we get Vincent! Totally a coincidence that he had the same agent, and his agent liked the script and recommended it to Vincent again. I think Vincent probably thought that this project was stalking him, so he better do the film or be harassed forever!
HC: Did Vincent talk about his career to you and was he an easy person to direct? He must have had a lot of presence on set, how did the rest of the cast react to him and was it an enjoyable experience?
JB: Vincent was a total pro, and was a total dream to direct. He made it clear to me that he WANTED to be directed, and trusted my guidance. So, I must say, that after maybe one-half day (we had two days of shooting with him) I talked to him director to actor, as opposed to say, fan to legend! But that was his doing, and his grace and professionalism. He was incredibly open on and off the set, and it was a great moment when Roger Corman came down and had a little reunion with him. We were shooting at Roger's studio in Venice, CA. The rest of the cast came down for photo shoots with Vincent...there is a lovely picture that I treasure of Rosalind Cash and Vincent, taken by the very talented photographer Dan Golden. Clu Gulager and Miriam came down, Martine Beswicke was there, and Hazel Court came by to see Vincent...so it was a great time. I am telling you that Vincent never stopped talking from the time he came on the set to the time he left. Everyone I had ever met called me and asked to come to the set to meet him! And also, Otto Preminger had just passed away, and he gave a lovely interview to Entertainment Tonight on our set, talking about Laura. Vincent loved talking about his career, but he was bored with mundane questions and certainly blanched at being referred to as a horror actor. Of course we know that he was so much more, and the longer it is since he has gone, the gap he has left gets wider. So, overall, I can only say that it was a total honour, and I don’t use that word loosely, an honour to get to direct a bonafide cinema legend like Vincent.
In the next part of this exclusive interview Jeff talks about Stepfather 2 and horror movie remakes.