LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Exclusive Interview With Director Jeff Burr - Part 3
By James Whittington, Monday 31st May 2010
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 third and final part of an exclusive interview, Jeff talks about his TV work and his plans for the future.
HC: You spent some time on the TV series, Big Bad Beetleborgs, how different was that to movie production?
JB: I have done relatively little true television...just two episodes of the 90's version of Land Of The Lost and 3 episodes of Big Bad Beetleborgs. Land Of The Lost I felt I made more of a directorial contribution...I did "Gladiators" and "Future Boy". It was a total kick to get to meet Sid and Marty Kroft (as they were childhood icons of 70's TV) at the season wrap party, and I felt I did something with those episodes. Beetleborgs used a good deal of stock footage from the original Japanese show, and they were done in 11 days for three episodes...so it was very hard to break the formula. There is one shot that I am proud of in those three episodes. A slow motion shot of two kids who have just turned into vampires running down a suburban street, capes flying in the wind. It was a good experience for me to direct TV, you use different directorial muscles, and the cast and crew of both shows were a lot of fun. Robert Hughes the producer for Saban, and Randy Pope, the producer for Krofft, both were great to work for. Both gentlemen and straight shooters, increasingly a rarity in this business!
HC: Are children a harder audience to please?
JB: I don’t think children are harder to please, but of course the trick in making a so-called kids movie or show is to make it for adults, and then utilize the kid in you. You can never condescend to kids, they will sense it and be totally turned off. They are a very smart audience, so you have to work on multiple levels...the best kids movies work for adults and kids. I would love to do a children’s movie one day that I have control over, and I think it would be more like Time Bandits than Hannah Montana. But I think the answer to your question is all audiences are harder to please in 2010! They feel they have seen everything already, so there is a certain cynicism that is ingrained...and an unconscious hostility. They are sitting there with their arms folded, saying "entertain me, motherf*****" and if they aren’t into it in the first five minutes, they have already checked out and are texting friends saying the movie sucks and emailing the IMDb with a 2 rating! But weirdly, most of the audience doesn’t seem to want something really different, just the proverbial new wine in old bottles, and if the audience isn’t willing to experiment, you can be damn sure the executives aren’t going to hire experimental directors! And that’s really the only way the medium really grows! So, it is a combination of filmmakers and producers playing safe and the audience passively going along with it.
HC: Is it hard to approach movies such as Puppet Master Parts 4 and 5?
JB: Well, again, Puppet Master 4 and 5 were totally compromised from the get-go, with limited prep because Charlie Band was going to direct the film as the first theatrical Full Moon feature for Paramount, and then something happened, and that fell apart, so he took the script, split it in two, padded it out, and made two direct to video sequels instead! One of the problems of those movies, in my mind, were on one level, they were like kids movies that would be G rated, and on the other hand they were R rated horror films, and in reality, they were neither. So I tried to make mine as snappy and stylish as I could, given the circumstances, and it really was like TV in the sense you had a crew that had been making these movies for a few years, and you were the new guy. So there was certain clashes with various departments when you wanted something they weren’t used to doing, not to mention budget problems and cash flow problems during the making of them. They were shot simultaneously, and 4 was edited quickly to come out fast, and 5 languished for a long time, with nothing being done, and then it was hurry up we have to have this to replace some other film that isn’t ready! I love part 5, not for any reason other than the people in it...most of them were my friends, so that was and is a fond memory of the making. And I got to work for a day with Ron O’Neal, and Kaz Garas, star of The Last Safari! (A film my brother and I had seen as a kid and loved) The funny thing about those movies is that no one, and I mean no one, understood the script and thought it made any kind of sense at all, Puppet Master logic or dramatic logic or just plain readability! Maybe it was the equivalent of directing a film not in your native language! And lastly, in all seriousness, the movies got a bad rap because quite frankly we were following a movie that was a lot of fun, very imaginative and inventive, and different than the others...namely Puppet Master 3, the best of the sequels, written by Courtney Joyner and directly with crisp efficiency and style by Dave DeCouteau.
HC: The pressure to keep the loyal fans as well as the executives happy must be pretty intense, how did you cope?
HC: The pressure to keep the loyal fans as well as the executives happy must be pretty intense, how did you cope?
JB: You didn’t have time to cope, or to think...all I did on those movies was to put the maximum amount of energy into them as I could, and style, and fun. Jason Adams, who played Cameron, and Gordon Currie, who played Rick, really got into the spirit of it and were great to work with, as was Chandra West. And it was obvious that the puppets were the defacto stars, so I put a lot of attention into making them more human-like and different than previous films. As for executives, the only one that was around fairly often was Albert Band, who was a great guy to talk to...he truly loved films and of course he knew everybody. He was one of the writers of Huston's version of Red Badge Of Courage, and of course he produced some spaghetti westerns such as A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, and a cool little Richard Boone thriller I Bury The Living. He chided me about shooting too much film (we were shooting 35mm and editing on film, so there was a work print made) but was pretty good. It was only during editing that I had some interference that irritated me. The character Dan Zucovic plays, the Delivery Man, who delivers the totems to the lab and to the hotel, smokes a post-coital cigarette lovingly after the delivery. It was a good character action, and was shot very stylishly. Charlie cut it out because he felt it promoted smoking! Never mind the other deaths!
HC: They must be difficult movies from a technical point of view?
HC: They must be difficult movies from a technical point of view?
JB: They were a little difficult, but the main thing was the time involved in setting up the puppet's mechanisms and trying to hide the cables in the days before wire removal! But it was great to be able to work with David Allen who had made one of my favourite little horror movies Equinox, and his assistant at the time Chris Endicott. They were game for anything, and tried to get what I asked for and go the extra mile. David was a true artist, and so talented in his chosen field. I had been a fan of stop motion for many years, so it was a thrill to work with him. These films, you must realise, were shot in 25 days for both films, with additional days for puppet unit/doubles. So they were on some level put together with spit and chewing gum, even though they looked relatively lavish, compared to other low budget films of similar time and money. MAYBE the whole budget for both movies was 1 million, but that is probably way inflated...and I mean combined, not for each!
HC: Tell us about the family friendly Frankenstein And The Werewolf Reborn, that’s a classic Euro horror title don’t you think?
JB: The Werewolf Reborn was a pilot for a 'Goosebumps' type TV show that Charlie wanted to do for Nickelodeon or a similar network at the time. It was shot in 7 days, and for about $25,000. How do I know that? I carried the budget over there, for Charlie, in cash, to be delivered to Vlad Panescu at Castel Studios. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon in Romania, and we started to shoot on Monday morning. In that time, I cast the Romanian roles, picked the locations, talked to my DP (the great Viorel Sergevici) rehearsed with the American actors, and drank a little palinka (local drink) to steady my nerves. The script was written by Neil Stevens, who has gone on to write some Hellraiser sequels, etc. We did our best, tried to inject as much style into it as possible, and it was great to work with Robin Downes, Len Lesser and Ashley Cafagna. At the end of the day, it was supposed to fit an hour slot (so be about 50-ish minutes) but it got padded out to 70 minutes for the eventual video release. The post production on that film was barely there, as Full Moon was going through money problems at that time, so the colour timing was never done properly, and all the post suffered horribly from lack of money. But it was a good exercise for me to make the film, and made me determined to do my own film in Romania, which I loved shooting in. It took some years, but I finally got to make Straight Into Darkness there in 2001. The Frankenstein part of the video was directed under similar circumstances by Dave DeCouteau, a little later, using standing sets from Kushner-Locke's version of Beowulf, directed by Graham Baker.
HC: You’ve also made a few appearances in a number of movies, which one has been the most memorable?
JB: I would say my most memorable acting experience, by virtue of it being the longest, was in a movie made in 1991 called Ghost Gunfighter aka High Tomb, made by Chuck Williams, and not coincidentally, starring him! We shot in a little town outside of Benson Arizona, and it was a total blast. Dave Parker (who has just become a major director with The Hills Run Red) was on the shoot, my brother was on it, Stacie Randall was on it (who had just done Eddie Presley for me), and it was just so much fun. The script was imaginative for what it was, and the production values were quite good. The movie was made for lunch money. Now, please keep in mind I am talking about the experience of making it, not my job in it! I hope I didn’t hurt the film too badly! But it is a lot of fun and always educational to act in films, as you get the creative rush but not the monkey on your back! It is always interesting to see how other directors work, and you can pick up things, both good and bad, to use and to never do, when you act for other directors. So, any directors reading this...hire Jeff Burr for a role!!! (but of course hire the ones I already told you to hire first!)
HC: Your most recent movie, Luger Of The Black Sun is a great title, what’s the movie about?
JB: That movie is about three years in the making, that's what it’s about! No, it is a very strange, crazy movie shot in Romania in the summer of 2006 and in London in 2007, kind of in the vein of The DaVinci Code, dealing with an ancient evil, the Iron Guard in Romania in WW2, Nazis, media manipulation, and Richard Lynch as a Ted Turner/Richard Branson-esque mogul. There is a trailer on www.youtube.com and a website www.lugeroftheblacksun.com that will explain a few more things. It was put together by a first time producer/actor/writer named Gary Douglas, a very energetic fellow who will find the money to finally finish the movie. The effects work on the film has taken time, as there is very little money and a lot to do (things never change! There’s never enough money!)
HC: Are you happier behind the camera or do you enjoy the writing process more?
JB: I view the process as a holistic one, it is all related and one system affects the other and are totally interconnected. All I know is that the films I love are made by a handful of people on the creative level, and the more people you have to please in regard to executives, test screenings, producers, etc the worse the movie gets. So when I write, I am directing the film in my head, when I am directing the film on the floor, I am synthesising my original ideas with the hundreds that are thrown out on a daily basis, always keeping in mind the film that I know I am making, and when I edit, I am refining, clarifying, and bettering the original idea, rewriting, basically, by dealing with the film as it is, not as I thought it was supposed to be...and that is where some great discoveries happen...because when you juxtapose one piece of film with another that maybe wasn’t planned, and add some sound that you never originally thought of, something magic, true alchemy, happens! And that’s why editing a film is so important...and that is why the last three or four films that I have been involved with I have taken my name off of, because if you are not allowed that editorial process, the film is much less than what it could be. One-way to say it is this...there is no such thing as a perfect film (OK, maybe Citizen Kane, 8 1/2, 2001 are the exceptions that prove the rule) so every film has mistakes or flaws. I just guarantee you that my flaws are more interesting than any producer's flaws or executive flaws!!!! As for happiness, here is a true Hollywood statement. Making a film is an awful, miserable, soul crushing, frustrating process. The only thing worse is not making a film. (I think it is Billy Wilder or Stanley Donen who said that, and I am paraphrasing)
HC: So what’s next for you?
JB: I am working on a few projects...one of them is a documentary on TV directors from the 50's -70's, and it is called Inside The Tube. It has been amazing interviewing these guys, very inspiring, and they are so underrated. A sample guy is William Hale, who made some amazing films for television. If you ever get a chance, check out How I Spent My Summer Vacation aka Deadly Roulette. An amazing directing job that so few people now know about! And I have a horror film that I am thinking about, and am writing a film now I have to make...so I damn well better get it made! Hopefully it will be something totally different than what people might expect. And lastly, I would just like to thank you for this interview and I would like to thank any fans of my work out there for sticking with me...I know it has been a rough ride, but I really am working to honour your interest in my films...Thank you so much, and for anyone who is interested, please come to www.jeffburr.com!
Jeff Burr, thank you very much.
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