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 second part of an exclusive interview, Jeff talks about his first real directing job and the controversy surrounding Leatherface.
HC: Stepfather 2 is a rather intense movie with Terry O’ Quinn obviously enjoying his role as the very unstable character Gene Clifford. Did he stay in character (of sorts) during takes?
JB: Stepfather 2 was in some ways my first professional film. From A Whisper To A Scream was a totally independent film, and I had total creative control, final cut, the whole nine yards. Stepfather 2 was a film that I was hired to do, along with my brother William and Darin Scott, the producing team behind FAWTAS. So in many ways I was still protected, but we three were pitted against the corporate mentality. I was fairly naive, in terms of professional Hollywood, and the film was supposed to be a no-nonsense programmer that was going to be quickly made and finished...it was started in November of 1988, and was supposed to be released on video in April 1989. That was the mandate when we were hired to do the movie. So, it wasn’t a given that Terry O' Quinn would want to be involved in something like that...a sequel to his greatest role to that point, done for about a third of what the original's budget was! But thankfully, he did the movie, and he was a GREAT guy to work with, and quite the opposite of your question. At least in my experience, with that role, Terry could turn it on and off, and didn’t walk around in character...far from it. We had some good football tosses between set-ups; he would play his guitar (and actually wrote a song called Bad Daddy Blues) etc. There was only one mildly tense day, when he had a really bad cold and had to shoot a scene where he was conducting a therapy session for the neighbourhood women. I think Terry had a good time on the film and enjoyed making it, and was surprised that it got a theatrical release (as we all were) and to his credit, out of respect for me and the film, when Miramax called him to shoot some additional gore scenes, he refused. Also, just so you know, a new edition of Stepfather 2 it came out last October, to coincide with the release of the remake of The Stepfather. It was put out by Synapse, and will feature many features that weren’t on the Miramax disc from 2003.
HC: Do you like slasher movies and do you think the remake would be the same without Terry?
JB: I quite honestly was never a big fan of slasher movies, and certainly wouldn’t put The Stepfather in that category. The original, directed by Joe Ruben, is a mini-masterpiece thriller, which has some thematic weight and a big dose of style. Not to mention a great lead performance by Terry. It is a "Hitchcockian" thriller, in a similar vein to something like Shadow Of A Doubt. My sequel is probably more "slasher-like" than the first, as the central surprise of the character is known, but it still is more of a traditional thriller than a body-count movie. The fun is to see how the Stepfather is going to be disappointed, and how he will deal with that disappointment, and how and when he will be discovered by either a spouse, a friend of the spouse, or the child of the spouse!!! Just like in a Hitchcock film, you might find yourself unconsciously rooting for the Stepfather character, because you have been conditioned, just like him, to want an American Dream that is borderline impossible to achieve, but the striving for it still seems somehow worthwhile. You must remember that the first Stepfather was made at more or less the height of the Reagan era, the return to "traditional" American values and all the hypocrisy that entails! So the socio-political situation of the original will still work, but what I think might happen in the remake is that all the thematic stuff from the original that was subtle or subtext will be made overt and actual "text". Which will make it a much less interesting movie. I know that the child in the remake is a son, not a daughter (or maybe they have both) and that will mean that the end of the movie is a mano-a-mano CGI slugfest/stuntfest. Of course I don’t know, because I haven’t read the script, and I shouldn’t comment. But one thing (and I know that I am a mouse's voice in a hurricane) is that WHY THE F*** should you remake a film from 1986 that was damn well done the first time!!!! We should be creating our own new Stepfathers, and Chainsaws, and Dawns Of The Dead, and Nightmares, etc instead of ploughing the fields of the past. When will this stop? When people stop going to these movies and demanding more from their entertainment! But I think movies are considered less important now, with all the other options for leisure time and entertainment, and consequently don’t have the same weight in any way. BUT THEY COULD! And it is worth trying. I don’t begrudge anyone working on the Stepfather remake anything, because probably the director is young and learning, and needs to work to learn. Look, I have been more of the problem than the solution with my own filmography, but I learned a lot in regard to my craft when I got to do the films I did, so now I am a director that has twenty-something years of experience and ideas! So I am ready to do some very challenging work. And I want to do that more than ever. It is just finding some producers and executives that share that ambition. And that is one word that I would use to describe the difference of movies in the 70's, let's say, to now. AMBITION. Some people (meaning producers and executives) WANTED to make the great American movie then...now the ambition is to be number one at the box-office only!!! Movies are a lot less ambitious now, especially the genre movies, and that is sad. But I am inspired always by somebody...and there will always be Cronenbergs, Lynches, Finchers, Tarantinos, etc to shake things up.
HC: How did you get involved with the controversial movie Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III?
JB: I got involved with Leatherface in a very traditional, Hollywood way. My agent at the time, Bobbi Thompson at William Morris, asked me if I would be interested in taking a meeting at New Line on a new Chainsaw movie. I was a fan of the first one, and said heck yeah! So I had a meeting at New Line with Michael Deluca, they saw Stepfather 2, which was just finished, and I think they saw From A Whisper, and that was that. This would have been in April of 1989. I didn’t hear any more about it, and didn’t think anymore about it, until late June/early July, when I got a call from my agent saying that New Line wanted to meet me again and have me read the latest version of the script and they were very interested. So I had another meeting, told them my thoughts on the script, and then they offered me the movie. Another director had dropped out, they had to start shooting at a certain date to make their release date, and construction on the sets (really the house) had already started, so I asked to think about it, which was over the July 4th weekend, and I thought that the positives (high profile release, big Indie company) outweighed the negatives (replacing another director, inheriting some irrevocable decisions). So I started pre-production, storyboarding, casting, location approvals, etc the next day!
HC: It was rejected by the BBFC for classification in 1990; do you remember what they didn’t like about it?
JB: It should have been no surprise to New Line that Leatherface was banned in England, as the first two Chainsaws were banned there first! But they had a deal with a company called Enterprise Films, and maybe Enterprise thought that they could get it classified, but no luck. It was banned, and all I know is that it was shown theatrically there at the late, lamented Scala Theater, which seemed to make a habit out of showing banned films. It also played a few festivals in England, like Shock Around The Clock, but never came out theatrically there! As for the BBFC, I think the better question is what did they like about it? They had a problem with everything...sadism, relentless tone, depravity, children involved with violence, violence that could be copied, etc. There is some website with the actual verdict on it. HC: Was it a difficult movie to cast? JB: No, it wasn’t a difficult movie to cast as such, it was just a time crunch, and there was a great deal of second-guessing and would-be chefs in the kitchen. This was the first movie I had done where I didn’t have a sympathetic and understanding producer, and I paid the price. Only later did I learn that nobody at New Line was particularly excited to have me direct the film. I was the first guy that they wouldn’t kick out of the room that accepted the job! So, that is not exactly operating from a power position, and I tried to make the film like I try to make any film...totally mine! Infusing it with my personality, style, sensibilities, etc etc. and those qualities weren’t really wanted. In retrospect, I guess I should have come in like some kind of mechanic, and diagnosed the obvious problems and just worked with them to fix them, as it was more of a salvage job operation at that point, because of the time crunch of the release date. I think it is fairly ironic (and typical of Hollywood logic) that the film I spent the least amount of time on is my most well known film! I was hired around the 4th of July, started shooting around the 17th of July, and was finished with the movie totally by early November. At the most, four months! And we are still talking about it 20 years later! Pretty funny to me!
HC: Cult favourite Ken Foree plays Benny, what was he like to work with?
JB: Ken Foree was great to work with; I of course like everybody else had been a huge fan of his since Dawn Of The Dead. A person that worked frequently with Romero, Pat Buba, was my editor on Stepfather 2, (I wanted him to edit Leatherface but he was on Two Evil Eyes) and I asked him about Ken. He said Ken was great, and I would love working with him and Pat wasn’t wrong! I have worked with Ken since, and he is an underrated talent. A note to all directors reading this...Ken is a great guy and a total asset to your film...hire him!!!! A quick note about our Leatherface...I felt the need to offer it to Gunnar Hansen, who I had met briefly in 1988...I thought if we got him, this movie might be considered a truer sequel...so I offered it to him, but New Line would only pay scale for the role. So he turned it down, and I then immediately thought of R.A. Mihailoff, who had been in Divided We Fall and was already a larger than life guy! So he had to jump through one or two corporate hoops, but he was accepted in the role, and he threw himself into it with abandon. He was terrific in the role, and the cut versions didn’t do his character any favours, but there should have been even more of him in the film...R.A. is a total horror film fanatic, and he had read Famous Monsters magazine as a kid and one of his dreams as an actor was to play a monster. So he got his wish with this film! Note to directors reading this too...hire R.A. He is a hilarious, really energetic and talented guy to work with!
HC: Also Viggo Mortensen makes an early cinematic appearance, had he had much experience on film sets by this time?
JB: Viggo had been in a fair amount of movies by then, and had starred in the Irwin Yablans film Prison, directed by Renny Harlin and written by my friend Courtney Joyner. I knew Renny a little bit then, and had seen that movie several times, in various states of completion. I thought Viggo was good in it, and so was Tom Everett, so I stole them for my film! Viggo was absolutely great to work with, and he really bonded with Joe Unger and Tom Everett and Miriam Byrd-Nethery. Their scenes, along with R.A., were probably the most interesting stuff in the movie. They interacted like a family, and lent a lot of subtext to the family dynamic...and in terms of the cast, I would like to also mention Kate Hodge, who was game for anything and everything, and couldn’t have been more talented and professional, and it was her first real role in a film. She acted like a total cinematic veteran, and had great instincts. She was cast right after that by Mick Garris to star in She Wolf Of London, a TV series, and then has gone on to a good career. I can’t help but think she was undervalued when she was younger, and I hope she gets the roles she deserves. And Billy Butler was a total hoot. He has become a talented writer-director now, so check out his IMDb page and see what he has done. So the cast was the real joy of making that movie...almost every other aspect was difficult, partly due to the company's attitude at the time, but quite honestly partly due to my own inexperience and naiveté!
HC: Do you like the more recent TCM movies?
JB: I saw some of the first remake of TCM directed by Marcus Nispel, and I thought it was much better than I expected. Marcus is a talented guy, and a great decision was made to bring back Danny Pearl as DP, and give the remake a totally different look. I do think of all the TCM movies I have seen (didn’t see New Beginning) they all have distinct looks and are their own entities, for better or worse! But again, refer back to my comments re the epidemic (nay pandemic) of remakes, remaining, etc and that is really how I feel about all of this stuff!
In the third and final part Jeff talks about his TV work and plans for the future.