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Filmmaking "for the fun of it": an Interview with Jack Hill.

As his web site notes, "legendary cult-film director, grunge auteur, notorious--these are some of the phrases used recently to describe writer-director Jack Hill. He has also been referred to as the man who initiated the women-in-prison genre of the seventies, and whose films helped define the so-called Blaxploitation genre, as well as the man who discovered Pam Grier. Unlike most cult films, though, Hill's films were commercially extremely successful in their initial release, despite being generally snubbed by contemporary critics. But that situation has been remedied in recent years, as many of today's serious critics--perhaps inspired by the enthusiastic support of Quentin Tarantino, who gladly acknowledges the influence of Hill's films on his own work--have been taking a new look at some of Hill's films of the sixties and seventies and using terms like 'post-modern', 'ahead of their time', and 'feminist manifesto' to describe them." Throughout our conversation, I was not disappointed by this rather hyperbolic introduction. Jack Hill has crammed more into his career than most, and our conversation took a number of surprising turns, further illuminating the world of exploitational filmmaking in the early 1960s. Hill's best films have now been taken up by a whole new generation of critics and filmmakers, and he seemed eager to talk about such films as Coffy (1973), Switchblad Sisters (1975), and The Big Doll House (1971). I had the chance to talk to Jack Hill on January 20, 2004, and our conversation ranged over a wide variety of Hill's exploits, from his early years as a musician, to his career as a director, and his future and current projects.

WWD: I understand that your father was a designer for Disney and for Warner Brothers. Could you tell me some more about your father's work?

JH: My father, Roland Hill, was a was a flyer in the First World War in France, Then after the war, he stayed to study art and architecture in Europe. When he came back to the States, after he got out of the Army, he came to Hollywood, started working as an architect and designer, and very soon got into the movies. That was about 1925 at First National Studios, which later became Warner Brothers. He worked as a set designer and then became an assistant art director, and finally, an art director on Warner Brothers shorts, Then, a little after the breakup of the studio system, in the 1950s, he did some TV and ended up with Disney, where he worked for quite a while.

WWD: Were you hanging around on the set with him when you were a kid?

JH: Very, very little. Once in a while, if there were special effects, or miniatures or something like that, which he thought I'd be interested in, he would take me there on Saturday, but otherwise not really, no.

WWD: When did you figure out that you were interested in making movies?

JH: I studied in the cinema school at UCLA. I had been doing a lot of photography when I was very young, and then I got a 8-millimeter movie camera and made films, edited them, put together things with my friends and stuff like that, but not to a great extent. Mostly, in my younger days, I was a musician.

WWD: In fact, you majored in music composition at UCLA.

JH: Yeah. I got my BA in 1960.

WWD: With your father so involved in film, why were you more attracted to music?

JH: Well, my mother was a music teacher, and I started on violin and piano when I was five years old, and I was playing professionally when ! was a teenager. Then later, I learned how to play the Hungarian cymbalom, which is a very difficult instrument. I started doing a lot of recording for films, television, and records.

WWD: What kind of films did you work for?

JH: I did all the films with Eastern European music. I did a lot of episodes of the television series Mission Impossible. I played on the soundtracks of [David Lean's] Dr. Zhivago [ 1965], [Richard Brooks'] The Brothers Karamazov [1958], [J. Lee Thompson's] Taras Bulba [1962], [Bryan Forbes'] King Rat [1965], [Bernard Girard's] Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round [1966], [Richard Brooks'] The Professionals [1966], a lot of projects. I don't remember all of them.

WWD: Where did you go to school?

JH: Hollywood High School. After Hollywood High, I went to Chapman College, which at that time was a small college in Los Angeles. They later moved to Orange County. Because they had a special system, instead of taking a full curriculum, you could take just one subject and concentrate on that for six weeks at a time. So, I took an entire music course there. Then I went to UCLA for a little while, and then I dropped out and worked as a musician for a long time. I did everything from little concerts, to playing gypsy music in a Hungarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip, to playing electric piano in a rock group on the road in the late '50s. And then after that, I decided I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree in music.

WWD: So you went back to UCLA.

JH: Yeah, I wanted to learn how to score movies professionally. And, in fact, I did score a 20-minute student film called Cross-Country Runner. It was directed by a guy by named Mark McCarty. I don't know whatever happened to him. I don't think the film was ever finished. I got into the UCLA Cinema Department as a minor, and I took a writing course and they encouraged me to do more scripts. So I ended up taking a directing class and directed a short film for my project. Then I got to do what they called at that time a "major production." They would choose two or three scripts a semester by competition. You'd have to submit your story or your script, and so I got to do that. It came out as a 30-minute long film called The Host (1960), which I directed and scripted.

It's a gangster/western. It was a guy on the run. We don't know what he's on the run from. An existential western, you might say. I don't know if you know this, but The Host turned out to be the template for the third act of [Francis Ford Coppola's] Apocalypse Now [1979]. Believe it or not, it's on The Switchblade Sisters DVD. Quentin Tarantino got Miramax to put up the money to finish The Host, we scored it, did sound effects and everything, and now it's there for everyone to see.

WWD: How did you move into the orbit of Roger Corman? (2)

JH: Well, Francis Ford Coppola got to work for Roger because they were looking for somebody to write a script--this sounds really bizarre. Roger had purchased some Russian science fiction films, which had a lot of marvelous special effects. They had a studio in Moscow where they did these big, beautiful special effects. They were propagandizing their space efforts, I guess. Roger wanted to pull out the special effects scenes and get an actress to dress up in space suits that looked like the ones in the existing footage, and have somebody write a script that he could do that with. That was called Battle Beyond the Sun.

WWD: How did you get hooked up with The Playgirls and the Bellboy [1962], and what on earth is it?

JH: That was actually before we worked for Roger Corman. That was another thing that Francis put together. He was a quite a promoter. Basically, it was a film with a lot of nudity, but didn't make a lot of sense. It's got June Wilkinson in it and Karin Dor. But the first one that he put together ended up being called The Wide Open Spaces, or Tonight for Sure [1962], which was sort of a soft core western, if you can believe it. It had different titles because it was put together in different ways, but anyway, having done that, Francis got this job to do The Playgirls and the Bellboy. It was originally a German film that these bottom-feeding producers had bought because it had some nude scenes in it. They had the idea that they could use this to make--and this is very bizarre, because it was a black and white film--they wanted to make a 3-D color film which they could inter-cut with it, with a lot of nudity. They got Francis to write a script, June Wilkinson to star in it, and Francis brought me in to edit the picture. I was on the set all the time, making notes for the editing, and then I cut the picture together. The result was very, very bizarre. When they projected the film in the theater, they had to put titles on the screen, "Now put on your glasses, and now take off your glasses," so that you could see the 3-D. But you know what? The picture was a huge success.

WWD: I also have you as an uncredited director on Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman [1960]? Is that true?

JH: Well, that is and it isn't. Roger Corman used to make these horror movies that were roughly 60 minutes in length for double features. Then when he wanted to sell them to television, they were too short. So a couple of them he needed to have footage added to, and The Wasp Woman was my assignment. I had to add about 20 minutes to the movie so he could sell it to TV. I also directed some extra sequences for an early Francis Ford Coppola film, Dementia 13 [1963], which Roger asked me to do.

WWD: Now what is your involvement with Corman's film The Terror [1963]?

JH: It was a similar kind of thing. It was shot on leftover sets from Corman's film of The Raven [1963]. Roger got Francis to write additional scenes to fill it out to a full-length movie and direct them. I was participating on the crew, and I did the sound recording and other things. But then after it was done, Francis went on to work for the major studios, with You're A Big Boy Now [1966], and that was the end of that. Francis had a lot of scenes in the script for The Terror that were supposed to be day for night, but he had neglected to tell the cameraman that. The whole thing was just a mess. Roger got me to salvage what I could and write a new script to do additional scenes, which Monte Hellman directed most of. I did a lot of bits and pieces that filled in, and then I supervised the editing. Oddly enough, it makes little sense, but it's a beautiful film. It's a really odd movie. Now you know why.

WWD: Now we come to Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told [1964]. What possessed you to make this your next project?

JH: Basically what happened is that I wrote this story idea down, because people were looking for low budget horror movies. A friend of mine who had been an actor, who was in Tonight for Sure [1962], named Karl Schanzer, ended up acting in Spider Baby. He'd been working as a private detective, and he had some clients who were in the real estate development business. They had been students at UCLA the same time I had been, in the theater department. And they wanted to produce a feature; in fact, they had gone into the building business in order to raise the money to make movies. So, they wanted to start off with a low budget horror movie, which was the most common way for people to get started. They had been reading and reading and reading scripts and didn't find anything they liked. So, Karl told them about me, and that I had been doing work for Roger Corman, and I might have a story. So they looked at my outline, and they thought it was so different from anything else they had been reading that they contracted with me to write the screenplay, and direct the movie.

WWD: And that has a very unusual cast, to say the least: Lon Chaney, Jr., Carol Ohmart, Mantan Moreland; what was that like?

JH: Chaney was a chronic alcoholic, but he loved acting very much. He wanted so badly to do a good job on it because nobody ever give him a chance to do comedy. Carol Ohmart had been in [William Castle's] House on Haunted Hill [1959]. I hadn't seen that movie at that time, but she was suggested as somebody that had a little bit of a sort of a familiar name, who might be available because she wasn't doing anything.

WWD: And what about Mantan Moreland? How did he wind up in the picture?

JH: Well, I just thought it would be a interesting idea to have him in the film; I always liked him, and the people that I was working with really liked him, too. They thought it was a terrific idea, so we called him and he said, "yeah, I'd like to do it."

WWD: How long was the shoot on that?

JH: Twelve days.

WWD: And the budget?

JH: $65,000. The cameraman was Alfred Taylor, who had shot Tonight for Sure, and he also shot all the footage that Francis did for The Terror.

WWD: Who distributed the film?

JH: Well, for a long time it was locked up in litigation because the building business collapsed around that time, and the producers were in bankruptcy. It took several years, but there was a distributor, David L. Hewitt, who had seen the picture when it was first finished. He kept his eye on it during this bankruptcy. Eventually he acquired the picture for distribution. He's the one that came up with the title, Spider Baby. The original title was Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. There was a Biblical movie out at that time called The Greatest Story Ever Told [George Stevens, 1965], so this was going to be The Maddest Story Ever Told.

WWD: Next comes Portrait in Terror [1965], which is a rather interesting and moody vampire film.

JH: That started out as a Yugoslavian movie, which Francis was over in Yugoslavia supposedly supervising to make sure that it would be a horror movie. But when Roger got it back, it wasn't a horror movie at all. It was a murder mystery. So, Roger told me to salvage whatever footage I could to make a horror movie out of it. We had Bill Campbell, who had been in the picture and he was available, so we shot a lot of new stuff in Venice, California. In the meantime, Roger called Stephanie Rothman.

WWD: Now, what was your connection with Stephanie Rothman? I'm moving now to Blood Bath [1966].

JH: Blood Bath was my script. It was my title.

WWD: Right, but you get a co-direction credit with Stephanie Rothman for the film.

JH: Well, that's because after I left, Roger decided that he didn't think that the Yugoslavian footage matched the footage that we had shot in Venice. You see, both Portrait in Terror and Blood Bath both came out of this same footage. Roger got the idea that he could sell the original movie to television and have Stephanie Rothman pad out what I shot with further scenes to make another full-length movie, winding up with two movies instead of one. This is the kind of nutso stuff that we went through there? So Stephanie wrote new scenes, and shot them, and turned it into a vampire movie. It became sort of a vampire movie with flashbacks. But we had no connection at all. I never met her at that time; we were working separately.

WWD: What about Mondo Keyhole [1966]?

JH: Well, after Spider Baby was not released, I was kind of in a desperate situation, so I went to work with this guy named John Lamb, who made nudist films in 16-millimeter, and distributed them by mail order, because at that time you couldn't show nudity on the screen. So we went out and shot some nudist films--it's a funny image in your mind if you can imagine me going out to a nudist camp. I had to wear a belt in order to hold the stuff for the camera. Other than that, we couldn't wear clothes. So, that was really, really a funny part of my life. Then I edited the films we shot into a full-length movie called The Raw Ones [1965], which actually played in theaters. We were all standing around waiting to be arrested; it was the first movie to actually show full-length frontal nudity on a screen in a theater. But nothing happened.

WWD: But what about Mondo Keyhole?

JH: Well, the original title of that film was The Worst Crime of All, and basically, it was a movie that I shot for John Lamb. A lot of it was a script that he kind of dictated, and the rest of it was what I wrote and directed. We used non-actors. I did the photography and the directing, and then I dubbed in the actors' voices with professional actors' voices, so it came out looking pretty good, actually, and it cost practically nothing to make. Mondo Keyhole looked so good for the money we had spent, Roger Corman saw it and he said, "If you can do that on a legitimate movie, we can make some money. Can you make a stock car racing movie?" And I said, "I don't wanna do that. I want to make an art film." Roger replied, "Well, make me an art film about stock car racing!" I needed the job, naturally, so I said yes.

I hated stock car racing, so I thought, "Oh, God, how am I gonna do this?" I didn't want anything to do with it, but then I got Brian Donlevy and Ellen Burstyn for the cast (it was one of Brian's last films, and one of Ellen's first), and so I wrote, directed, and edited Pit Stop [1967] for Roger as a result of that conversation. It was about figure-eight racing, which was new then, racing on a figure-eight track. I think it's one of my best films. The original title was The Winner, which I liked better, but just at that time, Universal was coming out with a big racing movie called Winning [James Goldstone, 1969], so Roger decided to change the title to Pit Stop.

After I had done that, I was approached by my attorney at that time, who was also the attorney for all the Mexican film production companies in Hollywood. He had a Mexican producer who had made an agreement with Boris Karloff to do four pictures back to back, which was absolutely insane. It was quite common in Mexico. But he didn't have any scripts. So he looked at my rough cut of Pit Stop and contracted with me to write four scripts for Boris Karloff, direct all of Boris's scenes in Hollywood. Because of his health, Karloff could not go to Mexico City. The Hollywood footage with Karloff was then going to be added to the rest of each of the four films, which were going to be shot in Mexico City. This is something you learn--you can only learn from working for Roger Corman.

WWD: How many days did you have with Karloff?

JH: I had four weeks. He was a very, very nice man to work with. These were his last four films, and he had to be in a wheelchair because he had emphysema. He had to have oxygen there. So if he had to do an action scene, he would breathe his oxygen, and then he'd get up and do the scene, and then come back and sit down in his wheelchair, and get the oxygen again. He was just wonderful about it. He enjoyed playing four different characters in four weeks. (4)

WWD: Okay. What about I, a Groupie?

JH: Right after I did Pit Stop, I went to Switzerland to produce a film for a Swiss producer named Erwin C. Dietrich, who was kind of notorious. Roger recommended me to do it. He was supposed to send me the script, and we had a contract that provided for many things, including a certain amount of prep time. The contract required the picture be shot in English, so that it could be released by Roger in the States. I was supposed to go to Zurich and the script hadn't come. I was calling Dietrich and saying, "Where's the script?" And he said, "Well, it isn't ready yet, but we'll have it for you when you get here."

So, I got off the plane in Zurich. "Where's the script?" I asked him. "Well, we don't have a script" he said, smiling. There was no script; there was no story, just a title. If I had been in my right mind, I would have said goodbye and gone home, but I took it as a challenge. So I worked out a story, but we couldn't find an actress who could speak English that Dietrich would approve of. We finally started shooting, but it didn't last long. To make the long story short, it came to a parting of the ways.

WWD: Is this when you went back to Roger, working for New World?

JH: Yeah, the next thing I directed was Big Doll House [1971]. That was Pam Grier's breakout movie and one of the first big hits New World had.

WWD: You are often credited with discovering Pam Grier; is this correct?

JH: Well, if anybody can be said to discover anybody, she had never done anything before, other than a walk-on in the background in a Russ Meyer movie. I interviewed her for the film, and I was immediately struck when I interviewed her and had her read for me. I thought she could do it, and she was great. She's gone on to an incredible career; she was really easy to work with.

WWD: What was the budget on that film?

JH: Officially, the cost of The Big Doll House was about $125,000, and it was the most profitable independent movie ever made up to its time.

WWD: Then you went on to do The Big Bird Cage [1972], another women in prison film, again with Pam Grier in the lead role, as well as Foxy Brown [1974], and one of my favorites, Coffy [1973]. I love the tag line for that film: "Nobody sleeps when they mess with Coffy." On all of these films, what was your shooting schedule like?

JH: Well, for The Big Doll House, in the Philippines, we just took whatever time we needed to do it, because time was our cheapest item! Nothing was ever ready on time. There was a hurricane that blew the roof off the sound stage, and it was just one thing after another. And of course, people got sick. So, I wouldn't call it a schedule. We just took the time we needed. It was fun for me and for the players, because we got to write new scenes and shoot them on the spot, because we were waiting for a set to be built, so we had to do something with our time. I hated the script. I thought it was just horrible. I did as much rewriting on it as I could and tried to make more of a comedy out of it.

Coffy was shot in Los Angeles. That was a very different experience. The script was locked down, and that was it. That was for AIP. A very tight shoot, very professional, all union crew, 18 days. Coffy was one of the biggest hits AIP ever had. It cost roughly $500,000 to make. AIP had a standard fixed budget limit on the Blaxploitation movies because they felt at $500,000, they could--with almost anything--guarantee that the black audience would bring them out of it. But they didn't think that a black picture would cross over with a white audience. Coffy was one of the first movies to show that you could attract a large white audience.

WWD: Why did you direct The Swinging Cheerleaders [1974]?

JH: Well, it just came up. After Foxy Brown, AIP offered me another script which I told them that I would direct, but only if they gave me some time to fix it up. Foxy Brown and Coffy I wrote myself. I thought this new script needed a lot of work, and they didn't want to hear that. I said, "Well, I don't wanna do it if I can't rewrite the script." So, it was a standoff. Just then, another distributor said with my name and the title Swinging Cheerleaders, we could get financing to do a movie. I did Swinging Cheerleaders because I had a nice percentage of it, and I felt that I could really, for the first time, actually make myself some money for myself, instead of making money for other people.

WWD: Switchblade Sisters [1975] is the film which perhaps you're best remembered for. Quentin Tarantino has called it one of his favorite films. How did you two get together?

JH: Well, I first met him at a screening. They had a screening of Blaxploitation movies, and they were showing Coffy and Foxy Brown at a theater in Los Angeles. Quentin came with his arms full of posters and record albums he wanted me to autograph for him. I had heard of him, but I had not seen any of his films at that point. I had heard that he'd made a movie that won the Cannes Film Festival, and that's all I knew.

WWD: Pulp Fiction [1994], yeah.

JH: I was very, very impressed. Some time after that, I got a call from Miramax, asking me who owned the rights to Switchblade Sisters. I owned the rights, so we struck a deal, and the film was one of the first features distributed nationally by Rolling Thunder, Quentin's company that he set up to distribute underappreciated films.

WWD: Now after Switchblade Sisters, I have a long gap and then Sorceress [1982], which you directed as "Brian Stuart."

JH: Well, I didn't even have a manager or an agent. I just kind of fell into the business anyway, and I wasn't really taking it seriously. I didn't think of myself as a filmmaker, or an auteur and all that kind of stuff. I just kind of went from one thing to another for the fun of it, and took long vacations in between. Bu that's not the way you build a career in Hollywood. Then I got another call from Roger, saying, "would you like to do a sword and sorcery movie?" He thought that might be a big genre. At that time, Roger had a special effects studio [at the New World Studios in Venice, California] that was doing really good work. They had done some of the special effects work on [John Carpenter's] Escape from New York [1981] and some other big pictures, and Corman owned the special effects unit himself, so he could do it for a low budget. So to me, it was an opportunity to make something that would look like a big movie, which I had never had an opportunity to do before. I thought this might get me back in business doing mainstream pictures. So I wrote the script, and he liked the script, but then things started to go wrong. There were all kinds of production problems, and by the time the film came out, I really didn't want to have anything to do with it.

WWD: Looking back on your work, what are the films that you feel the most satisfied with?

JH: Well, in all seriousness, I think Pit Stop is actually a pretty good movie. And Coffy has a lot going for it. I really put a lot of effort into that film that's kind of between the lines, if you know what I mean.

I feel that that movie was very, very successful, and I really felt I'd accomplished something because there was a lot of subtext there that people felt. Audience members talked back to the screen during the projection of the film; they identified with Coffy. I think I've done a lot of interesting work in film and some other stuff because I needed the money at the time. But all of my work is now coming out on DVD, and that's the final proof. These films last; audiences connect to them. That's the real test, if you ask me.

Notes

(1) See http://www.directorsnet.com/jhill/for more information.

(2) As I note in Contemporary North American Film Diretors, Corman remains one of the 20th century's greatest cinematic iconoclasts, who directed numerous black and white exploitation films for AIP in the 1950s, graduated to bigger films in the 1960s for AIP and 20th Century Fox, and then set up his own studio, New World. In the years that followed, Corman produced a stream of low-budget exploitation films, including Gerardo de Leon's Women In Cages (1971), Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972), Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974), Charles B. Griffith's Eat My Dust! (1976) Ron Howard's Grand Theft Auto (1977), and Allan Arkush, Joe Dante and Jerry Zucker's Rock and Roll High School (1979), offering employment opportunities for an entire new wave of directors, including Demme, Scorsese, Howard, Dante, Paul Bartel, and James Cameron, among others.

(3) As historian Cavett Binion notes of this film's strange genesis, "this low-budget vampire quickie is distinguished mainly by the presence of director Stephanie Rothman, who emerged from Roger Corman's New World Pictures (for whom she directed the exploitation classic The Student Nurses) to become and acclaimed feminist filmmaker. The piecework story incorporates footage shot by original director Jack Hill, combined with incongruent elements from a Yogoslavian supernatural thriller titled Operaton Titian which Corman obtained for a song, tied loosley together by new vampire material shot by Rothman. This may partially explain why the ancient Slavic vampire featured in the film decides to possess the body of a cheesecake photographer in California, who then murders his models in the name of Art. As one might imagine, this is pretty difficult to follow, but here are some good performances--particularly from William Campbell as the haunted shutterbug--and some fairly suspensefull scenes." See <http://www.allmovie.com/cg/ avg.dll?p=avg&sql=1:50660> for more details.

(4) The four films are Invasion siniestra (The Incredible Invasion), released in 1971; La Muerte viviente (Isle of the Snake People), also released in 1971); The Fear Chamber (La Camara del terror), 1968; and Macabe Serenade (House of Evil), 1968.
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Author:Dixon, Wheeler Winston
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:5177
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