Interview: Bill Lustig

Director Bill Lustig was a member of the international jury at BIFFF’07 (Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film 2007), and hosted the screening of a battered 35mm copy of his...

Director Bill Lustig was a member of the international jury at BIFFF’07 (Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film 2007), and hosted the screening of a battered 35mm copy of his classic psycho-trash slasher Maniac. Lustig is also known for his work, first at Anchor Bay, supervising dvd-releases of the cream-of-the-crop in their European cult-catalogue, and later as head honcho of his own publishing firm Blue Underground. The respect he gave to both classic and obscure titles set high standards for all the competition to try and reach – his pioneering work cannot be underestimated. To me it came as a bit of a shock when he announced earlier this year his decision to gradually stop his involvement in the business. But even so – there’s great things still to come from Blue Underground later in 2007. Read on :

How did you start out in the dvd-business?
DVD came along when I was buying rights to films, restoring them and putting them on laser-discs. I did that for several years – as a hobby – while I was making film. I had been making film for quite a while, I started pretty much in my teen years, making films and I directed my first film when I was twenty-one. I was in my mid-forties and in kind of a midlife-crisis, not really enjoying what I was doing anymore and looking for other things. So there was dvd, and I started putting out some of the films I released on laser-disc on dvd and watched how they were selling like crazy. I thought “this is interesting”, so I bought the rights to a lot of movies and started to produce them for Anchor Bay and in 2001 began Blue Underground, started doing what I was doing for Anchor Bay for myself.

How do you select your films, do you have strict criteria?
Yeah – if I like it, that’s the criteria.

Is there a big difference in buying licences so many years back and now? Have the prices gone up?
Surprisingly the prices have gone up, while the market has gone down. So it’s strange, but I’ve chosen to be very careful on what I licence and the prices I pay for stuff, because I just won’t get involved with the competition of driving up costs. I’d rather not do that, if it doesn’t make sense.

Why do you always tend to stick to English language tracks?
Well, my criteria is, if a film – take Italy for an example – when they shoot a film, they don’t shoot it in any one language, they shoot it multilingual – because of the actors coming from Germany, Spain, from this place, from that place. So my criteria is – which language did the star of the film dub his voice, is being the primary track.

I agree, that’s mostly true but – Don’t Torture a Duckling for example is really hurt by just featuring the English track, I feel. Were the sources not available?
Well – at the time we did Don’t Torture a Duckling, I don’t think we requested the Italian track on that movie, mainly because we were watching our costs. I don’t know if an Italian track was available. The movie is not a big seller for us, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever go back and add the Italian track. I know that may be disappointing, but I overextended myself on some movies like How to Kill a Judge and I lost a lot of money on that movie because I went out and did all the languages, did all the subtitles and everything else only to see it sell a few thousand units, which doesn’t even give me back my money that I laid out for it.

Does your involvement in the dvd-publishing world mean that you completely exclude the possibility of ever going back to doing feature film as a director?
No – in fact – I said to somebody, and it’s been published on the internet, that this is probably the last year that I will be releasing new titles through Blue Underground. I see that I dried up all of the available titles that I think are worth putting out, and whatever is unavailable or unaffordable has made it a natural for me to look for other things and put Blue Underground behind me, which is really what I knew one day that I would want to do. I never got into this to be a fulltime distributor.

And you’ll maybe direct again?
Yes – I want to do it. You know – I want to do it for many reasons. One is I love it, I love creating. Even when I do my dvds I consider them little mini-productions. By way of example – next week I’ve got a filmcrew that’s flying on monday to Spain to shoot interviews with Jess Franco, then from Spain they’re flying to Rome to shoot interviews with Dario Argento, Asia Argento, Giuseppe Rotunno, Sergio Stivaletti and a whole lot of other people and what’s the guy’s name, stars in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, been in tons of… Ray…

Lovelock, and we’ve got all kinds of people, and you know – they’re all like mini-productions, but I do want to make feature film.

You taught yourself the craft of filmmaking, how did that go, was it difficult?
Well – I had a passion. It came from passion, I didn’t have some – you know – I didn’t sit down and came up with a masterplan – it was totally organic. I started working in the film business in New York when I was in my mid-teens. About 50 percent were adult films, while 50 percent were mainstream films where I worked as a production assistent and roles like that. When I was twenty-one I directed my first adult film, which I call my graduate film school, which was to direct my film and then from there I did the movie Maniac.

How do you explain that Maniac always gets chosen as the example of the time when films went far in showing excessive violence and…
I think there’s a multitude of reasons why Maniac was iconic for that period. One of course is the poster. There wasn’t a poster before or after – well – possibly Hostel‘s European poster, but that was influenced by me. The Maniac-poster was in-your-face, there was no denying what the movie was – it was there. That was number one – the poster. I think the other thing was Joe Spinell. People who saw the film were affected by the performance of Joe. He created a character that was haunted, and I don’t think there has ever been a character in a film of that kind that haunted people since Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Really, that’s my opinion. I just think that Joe did something that was very special. And I think also – as far as Europe is concerned – we very cleverly premiered the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 and played it – at midnight – in the smallest theatre in Cannes. And by doing that, a lot of people could not get into the cinema and there were headlines about the crowds being turned away from the midnight show of Maniac. But in none of these articles did they ever mention that it had a very small amount of seats. So it became this thing that ‘Oh my God – people had tried to get in, couldn’t get in to see Maniac‘, so there was a lot of attention the film got and it was – probably a lot of reasons – but I think those were some of the primary reasons. The poster and Joe Spinell.

And the feminist reaction to the film – did that play a lot in the media as well, or…
Yes – we recieved a lot of media attention because we became the lightening rod during that period for films that depicted violence against women. But what was rather ironic is the woman who was the most vocal, in Los Angeles, the head of the Woman’s Group in Los Angeles, who was in front of the theatre – holding up signs and everything else – a year later was arrested as being an accomplice to a murder. So – I don’t know about you – but I would rather throw ketchup around in a movie than being an accomplice to a murder. Somehow that has a weight of gravity.

Now that you’re planning to take up directing again – do you plan to work with the same people again as in the past? People like Larry Cohen?
Larry? Yes – we talk all the time about scripts and ideas and things, so yeah – I’d like to work with Larry. But you know – I’m open to – if anyone has a good book or script or something – I’m looking for good material. I don’t want to try and make something derivative, I want to try something new.

What kind of film would you like to direct?
You know – I really want it to be something that would be…like a giallo. Like a giallo – or an American – like a pulp novel. Something that would be – pulpy and sensationalistic and fun. That’s something I would like to do. I don’t really want to do a straight horror film or – you know – make like a slasher film or…I’d like to do something that would be like a film noir, something I can have some fun with.

What’s your take on the new wave of horror films? Like Hostel, like Saw, with you leading the way?
I loved Saw, I liked Hostel – I don’t ‘love’ Hostel but I like it. I liked the idea – the concept was interesting. Saw, I think was a terrific movie, that one had me going from the beginning to end. I really loved the original Saw. Saw 2 and 3 – I didn’t see 3, I saw 2 – I did think it was okay but it didn’t have the surprise and the novelty that the first one had. As far as all the studio sequels and remakes – I hated the Texas Chainsaw-films – those Michael Bay-films? I did think that they were awful. I couldn’t sit through ten minutes. Let me be honest – I didn’t see the one that was the prequel, I only saw the one that was the remake? I watched ten minutes of it – hated it and I shut it off.

It sucked – and if you have to ask why – you’re in trouble (laughs). It was terrible – it wasn’t scary – it wasn’t Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I saw the scene where you’ve got (sarcastic) the gun – and the bullet goes through the head and out the back and – aw, it was stupid. This was – I’m watching a video game – I’m not watching a movie.

Have you seen anything in the recent horror films that grabbed your attention – that you really liked?
(thinking) Horror – horror – horror. I should have been prepared for this (laughs). I liked some of the Masters of Horror-episodes, there were some terrific horror stories. I thought Dario’s Pelts was pretty outrageous. Did you see that? It really was bizarre. That was good – I liked the one Mick Garris directed, that was a good episode. So I thought some of those Masters of Horror‘s ‘ve been good. Uhm – horror. Trying to think, you know – I think – it might be a Belgian film, or a French film – Calvaire? Calvaire – that was great – I loved the scene where they’re dancing – that scene got me really spooked and reminded me of Carnival of Souls.

Have you seen The Descent?
Liked The Descent a lot, thought that was very good. I liked High Tension – I like to think I played a small role in influencing that movie. The Descent – I thought the creatures were scary – they were genuinely scary – the way they shot them – the make-up…the lighting – I really was spooked. You know – it reminded me of Alien, I thought that was pretty intense. You know what film I liked? And you’re going to shoot me for it – I liked Tobe Hooper’s Toolbox Murders. I thought it was a lot of fun – it was better than I expected. Look – I felt kind of sad for Tobe. Here he was – making a movie that was clearly derivative of his movie, originally, and I was thinking – what could he have possibly come up with. So I reluctantly put the movie on and watched it one day and I was hooked! I thought it was a smart picture – it was fun – it had some really good moments in it. It really delivered – it was a good movie. I think it got under-distributed. I think it would have been a better film had it not been called Toolbox Murders. It doesn’t have much to do with the original anyway – I think the Toolbox Murders is what got it financed, and became its Achilles’ heel in selling it.

Can I ask some more about the upcoming releases of Blue Underground? You’re planning on doing a special edition of Stendhal Syndrome.
Coming out in september, yes.

Would you consider letting Dario Argento do an audio commentary in subtitled Italian?
Well – no – we’re not doing an audio commentary, but we’re shooting an interview with him next thursday. Him and Asia and Giuseppe Rotunno, Sergio Stivaletti and the author of the book. We’re shooting those interviews in Rome on the 18th and the 19th. And when I say ‘we’ – I’m not going to Rome, it’s going to be David Gregory who works for me.

Will you feature both the English and the Italian versions?
Yes – the English and the Italian. We just finished the transfer in high-definition under the supervision of the director of photography, so it’s the definitive version.

You’ve also got three Jess Franco titles coming up?
I think we’ve got four, for which we’re shooting interviews with Jess on tuesday. Cannibals, Women behind Bars, Cecilia and Eugenie de Sade – those are the four films we’re shooting with Jess Franco – that’s on tuesday, then the crew flies wednesday, they arrive in Rome wednesday night and then they shoot thursday and friday for the Stendhal Syndrome and stuff for a new edition that I’m going to put out next year of Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue which I just finished transferring in high definition from its original camera negative.

The transfer of the old edition was a bit too soft.
The new one is in high definition from the original camera negative. The old one was a standard def transfer from an internegative.

Eugenie de Sade has always been released cropped…
You’re gonna see a beautiful transfer of Eugenie de Sade in its original 1.66 aspect ratio in 16 by 9. I found the original camera negative and I haven’t transferred it yet, but I will be transferring it the next month and we’ll have the English track on it. It will be excellent – I happen to like that movie.

You’re also planning a special edition of Circle of Iron?
Yeah – that comes out next month.

Did it sell that well originally?
That’s really strange – Circle of Iron is a film that did respectable, but it didn’t go off into a huge. Every month that movie keeps going out the door, because there’s a big fan base for martial art-films and – let’s face it – Circle of Iron, however tenuous, is one of the handful of genuine Bruce Lee-related movies. So you have the Bruce Lee-factor and a genre which people love – martial arts and it works, so. We went back and were able to create a lot of new extras to fill a second disc, and it’s great – I mean – the second disc is a blast and we re-transferred the film in high definition.

You planned to release a disc of Death Laid an Egg, once.
That I aborted.

Money. It ran costly. The people who own it were asking for an enormous amount of money.

Can you give your view on the dvd-scene in America right now – ’cause there’s loads of problems, seemingly? I mean…
You know? You’re the second person who’s asked me that today, as though there’s some (sarcastic) ‘crisis’ in the film business. What’s happened is – simple. Your shelves – if I went to your home today – are all your dvds on shelves or in boxes? I’m from the school that – I’ve got all my shelves filled, I’ve got piles now on the floor. The bottom line is – people have filled their shelves. The retailers have filled their shelves. So – people are being more selective in what they buy – they’re just not gonna buy every dvd that comes out, they select which ones they’re gonna buy, and the same with the retailers. They’re not gonna bring every dvd that gets produced into their stores.

But there’s so little…
Too little? Right now there’s in America between 250 and 300 dvds…

But I mean – like the stuff you’re specialised in…
But I’m saying to you – the retailers have 250 to 300 dvds a week – a week – to select. There’s gonna be certain dvds that are not gonna hit the shelves – and that’s the reality of it. So – it’s a natural progression in any kind of growing market. The market is saturated, and I – I don’t see there’s a crisis – I see it as – you get better films.

I don’t know – there seemed to be a time when…
Let me put it to you this way. Don’t Torture a Duckling? If given the film today – to put out new, and I would have to transfer it and everything? I wouldn’t do it…and that’s the truth. Back then – it made economic sense, because everyone bought it. Because it was a novelty, it was Lucio Fulci, the stores needed product, they would buy anything. Today? I wouldn’t make any money out of it.

And that was that – it was great having the opportunity to talk to a man whose work in the dvd-business I hold in such a high esteem, and to top it off, he turned out to be a wonderful person. Thank you very much, Bill Lustig, for your time, and thank you, organisation of the 25th Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film for having made this interview possible.

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