Wednesday 30 January 2013

interview: Charles Band (Part 1)

This epic interview with Charles Band, the man behind Empire Pictures and Full Moon Films, was conducted over the course of two phone calls in June 2005, just as Charlie was launching a new film-making venture, Wizard Films (which shortly afterwards reverted to the Full Moon brand name, probably wisely). It was intended for publication in Psychotronic magazine but unfortunately, while I was editing this into a feature, Mike Weldon’s marvellous publication closed down. So here it is, in its entirety, for you all to enjoy. (This is by far the longest interview I have posted on this site. It runs to 9,500 words and was recorded on two separate days - hence the two parts.)

What is the difference between Empire, Full Moon and Wizard?
"The difference hopefully will be that Wizard will be exclusively carrying the films that I create and probably in most cases will direct. One hopes you learn from your mistakes. It's a very tough business and there are always things pulling at you - and sometimes not for the right reasons. So in the past I have sometimes been involved with partners who, with all the good intentions, pushed the mechanism that we had created - Empire and its releasing arm, and Full Moon to some degree too - to release other product. To get bigger and to broaden the original scope.

“You end up distancing yourself from what you dream of as a kid. In my case it was going out and making genre films, not being a bureaucrat and spending most of my time behind a desk trying to move the company forward. So if there's anything different with Wizard - and I hope I can maintain this - it's that Wizard is exclusively going to be for my movies. If I have the energy I may end up directing all of them. A few may go to some of the directors who have worked with me in the past and done terrific work, like Ted Nicolau and Stuart Gordon. But I just want Wizard to be totally true to the vision I have. It will do everything: conceive, produce and release genre films, including the action figures that will be tied to most of the releases. I hope that for the first time it is exclusively my shop and it doesn't get too confused with other genres and film-makers. That's not a quick answer but it's not an easy thing to answer quickly.

“Empire of course was in the eighties; we did theatrical distribution and so on. That started off as one thing and became another. The first few films were my films and the last year I think of the twelve films that were released only two were films I was directly involved in. And Full Moon in a way had the same problem. Originally the distribution arm was Paramount and we had to follow the beat of their drum. By the time we pulled away, the video business had changed and a lot of things were done to try to keep making some money and cover overheads. A number of movies were made that had little to do with me. They were made on digital video and a lot of new directors were given their first chance. Anyway, long story short, I hope that Wizard - third time at bat - will be true to the vision of the movies that I want to make and release, along with action figures and other related possible merchandise."

From the fans' point of view, your business model seems to be based to some extent on Roger Corman's. Is that true to any extent?
"I guess to some degree. I don't really think that way. I know I'm compared to Corman just because I've made almost 300 movies and he's made twice that."

He's been going longer than you!
"It's fair but there are a few differences. One, I'm dedicating my films exclusively to one genre and he did everything from - well, you know his repertoire. He didn't just make horror films and sci-fi movies. He was also a very successful distributor of many other films from other people, whether it was Fellini movies he acquired for US distribution or other art films during the New World days. Corman has been a distributor of many films, not just his own; he acquired many, many movies. I guess in a way, for a number of years, to some degree I did the same with Empire and with Full Moon. But at least the movies that I've made have all principally been in the horror/science fiction genre."

If there's a recurring theme in your work it's puppets and dolls. It's like you're just building yourself a huge toy-set.
"Some of this is budget-driven. I feel that less is always more. To attempt bigger things, bigger sci-fi/horror themes on these very low budgets is just impossible without making yourself look stupid. To some degree, I think I can do a good job with some of the recent movies and scenes that do involve these diminutive little characters and killer dolls and puppets. But some of the projects coming up are completely out of that realm so it won't be every one but there's no doubt that part of the absolute plan for Wizard is to create movies that, at their core, do have puppets, monsters, creatures, characters that are - if the word exists - 'toyetic'. That can be turned into action figures because I love that through-line and I think the fans dig it too.

“We're doing very limited editions. These aren't mass produced; we're averaging about 2,000 or 2,500 toys per character. Considering there's a worldwide audience out there, that's not a lot. So I like that, I like the scarcity, I like the fact that a lot of the early puppets that were released as Full Moon toys you can find on eBay for hundreds of dollars. These were toys that were originally sold at ten, fifteen dollars. So there's something about that that I like. There may be some other adventures when it comes to merchandising, things that can be tied into movies and either built into the film or discovered. But I do like that part of it.

“And of course the actual puppets and dolls - anything that's anywhere from eight to sixteen inches in the movie - really lend themselves well to action figures and models and replicas. So there's a little bit of all that in there, but you'll see there's some films coming out - one I'm about to start shooting - where the monsters are nice and big. Nothing small! No dolls in that one."

The first film you're credited with is Mansion of the Doomed, although you had done some earlier work in Italy with your father. How did you get Mansion of the Doomed together?
"You know, I've made enough mistakes. I just jumped into it. I wanted to make my first movie. I wanted it to be a horror film. At the time, unrelated to the film business, I had a successful little gift item business. I was real young, I was 21, and even though I'd grown up on a movie set and apprenticed with my dad and certainly knew a lot about the craft of film-making, I had no business training - which I really regretted later in life. I was thinking: boy, if I could just have spent a few years in a business school I would have avoided a lot of pitfalls. But I certainly had all the energy and passion to make my first movie. Between my own money, and I brought in a few investors, we jumped into Mansion of the Doomed.

“It was originally called The Eyes of Dr Chaney. That was the title I would have preferred to release it as - this was years before The Eyes of Laura Mars - and it would have been kind of a cool title. But I learned the first of many lessons: when the picture was done I gave it to a distributor, got a very small advance, never saw another penny - or a report, for that matter. And that's one of the great pitfalls of making small movies. Small distributors, even if they have good intentions, have nothing but problems. Usually they don't pay the producers.

“Eventually if a producer or director is looking at being prolific and having some longevity in this business, they will realise that the only way to protect themselves is to do their own distribution, not give their baby away to someone who will do everything including putting a bad title on it. That was his title. There was a distributor called Group 1 who wanted to call it Mansion of the Doomed which, even back then, sounded terrible. At least The Eyes of Dr Chaney was a little classier.

“I put it together and at the time interesting people were involved. The editor was John Carpenter who was a friend at the time - and no-one knows that. Andy Davis who became a big-time director was the director of photography. Stan Winston, who was a very close friend, did the effects. And I forget who else, there are probably a few I'm forgetting. It was Lance Henriksen's first movie. When I look back, it was an interesting group of people. I'm proud of the movie. It's actually a well-made small movie, it's classy, and it just suffers from the terrible title."

A few years before that was a film called Last Foxtrot in Burbank which has been obliterated from history. I'm guessing that's one you're not so proud of.
"That's obliterated for good reason! I was involved very peripherally. In some cases my name was attached or wasn't attached. So somewhere in the mix I did have some involvement in the movie and I'm glad if it's substantially erased because it was just something I helped someone out with and the next thing you know it somehow got stuck to me as a movie I made, which is not the case, nor did I direct it or anything. So the first real movie that I put my name on officially, that was my first genre film - I pulled in people who were friends - was: I want to say The Eyes of Dr Chaney but it really was released as Mansion of the Doomed."

You then went straight into making a whole series of films: Crash and Cinderella and End of the World - that whole production line thing. It wasn't a faltering start. Was the plan to make one movie and then immediately start making the next and so on.
"That's what I did. On those first seven or eight movies, unfortunately, I had no involvement with distribution and it was a miracle I survived that period because you don't even really get enough money to get the next movie going. It's just torture, and it's still extremely difficult if you control distribution, and I can look at all the differences over 30 years. I can't believe it's been 30 years. And of course there have been some years when the video business was amazing and it really fuelled thousands of movies, most of which probably shouldn't have been made, but nonetheless there were good years for people making small movies and bad years.

“But back then it was extremely difficult because there was no video, there was nothing. This was a theatrical world. You made a movie, it had to be on film, you had to cut a negative, you had to release it in theatres and try to make a few dollars. There were no ancillary markets. Home video didn't really exist, of course the internet didn't exist, there were really no television sales, maybe just a few local stations. That was in the days when these were truly B-movies; they would be the B-side of a double bill. They would get released theatrically and you just hoped a few dollars would be collected because they played at drive-ins and around the country. That was it, there was nothing else.

“The price of entry to the industry back then was steep. Because we weren't in a digital world, there was no real cheap way of anyone getting in. No matter how many friends would work for free, you had to rent the equipment, you had to buy the film, you had to cut the negative, you had to make prints which were expensive back then and are still very expensive today. So whereas today a kid with some talent (or lack of) can buy a digital video camera and a computer and for literally a few thousand dollars make a little movie. If that person has some training and is talented it can actually look and feel like a movie. Those tools did not exist thirty years ago."

You worked with two of the horror greats during this period: John Carradine in Crash and Christopher Lee in End of the World. That must have been a thrill.
"It was a thrill, absolutely, because I grew up watching all of their famous movies. It's funny: you wish you could go back with a little more maturity and enjoy the moment. I was certainly excited and aware of the people I was working with - but I was in my early twenties and I could have done things a little differently. But just the fact that I worked with them. I worked with a lot of wonderful people.

“I also worked with people who, at the time, were just young actors or actresses who went on to become very famous. I guess I could make that point 20 different times. But to have worked with Christopher Lee and John Carradine, you've actually cited the only two - well, Richard Basehart was also a thrill. I loved his work and he was another fantastic actor. But when it comes to the genre of horror movies, working with Carradine and Christopher Lee was really amazing."

Possibly Laserblast is the first recognisably 'Charles Band' style film, with the aliens and the cool title. Was that the way you wanted to go?
"I'm not the only one who does this, but a strong title, of course, has always been important and the idea of combining two words or really putting a lot of thought into the title before a picture is even written. Corman did it too so I can't claim that was my idea but I certainly focussed on that a lot. Most of the films that I made, that I conceived, that I was very involved with and in some cases directed, definitely started with the title and usually a piece of artwork that made sense. Then I would work back to the script and the story and make the movie. So that little formula has worked for me.

“There are so many films that get finished and people are still scratching their head as to how to market them, what to call them, looking for a title. They make the movie with a tentative title. That's not to say you can find that the inspiration doesn't come after the fact, but it's really hard when you're approaching a release date to be trying to still figure out how to market and sell your movie."

I think your most memorable title has to be Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn - because there's no metal storm in it and Jared-Syn doesn't get destroyed!
"Of course not! I've got others, if you think about it. Jeffrey Combs and I did a movie called Doctor Mordrid which I liked a lot because it was my little homage to Marvel Comics and Dr Strange and that whole deal. Some people asked me about this, because I did it almost as a joke; the subtitle was Dr Mordrid: Master of the Unknown. Well, if you really think that through it's... well, what is he the master of? It's almost crazier than the Metalstorm one."

From that period, one of your best films is undoubtedly Tourist Trap. It's an old idea, the House of Wax thing, but it's a really scary film.
"I have made very few scary movies, I'll admit to that, and that's probably one of the three or four. The rest of them have a different effect. They're certainly not scary. It was an idea that I wrote - sometimes I write a short story or a paragraph - and yes, it was inspired by other films I had seen as a kid. What's interesting about Tourist Trap, beside whatever somebody would want to know about making it: first of all, the idea was to try and make a film that was really creepy and scary and we had a pretty good idea. Early on in the process, Chuck Connors was mentioned as someone who may be available who really liked the script, so it came together really quickly.

“The funny part of the story is, at that time I was still unable to control my own distribution. I was working with a small company named Compass Films and I was really friendly with John Carpenter, we had been in touch for years. John and I were talking once and he said, 'You know, I'm actually going to make a movie that's going to be distributed by Compass and I know you're doing stuff for them.' Had we both known a little more at the time I'm sure we would have done better. But nonetheless, we were comparing notes and then it turned out we were going to be shooting around the same time and we said, oh, we should come visit each other's set. Then it turned out that we were going to be shooting one block from each other in a little shady street in Hollywood. His movie was called, at the time, The Babysitter Murders.

“And John and I were talking and I said, 'Look, I'm shooting the same week you're shooting on the same damn street. I think we're going to be a block from each other.' And I remember kidding him because I said that my movie was a bigger budget movie. I think his was around $300,000 and mine was $380,000. And I kept rubbing it in that my movie had a star, which was Chuck Connors, and his movie had essentially unknowns. So in fact during that week he walked over to my set and said hi, and we were fooling around, and another day I walked over to his set. Of course, although people remember Tourist Trap and like it and think it's a cool movie, it sort of faded away - and his movie became Halloween. That's my biggest memory of Tourist Trap: John making Halloween right down the street."

Trancers is another one of your iconic films. The difference between Tourist Trap and Halloween is that they haven't just made Tourist Trap Part VIII. But the Trancers series now runs to six films.
"Which is probably three too many because a lot of what was good about Trancers we couldn't recapture and I became less involved. But I always wanted to do a time travel movie and I came up with this idea. At the time there was a fellow working for me as an assistant or a cameraman, a guy named Danny Bilson, and he brought in a friend. Like everyone else in this town, or all over the world, everyone's got a script. So he said: hey, read my script, read my script. It was a very well-written script and I said, let's give these guys a shot at writing this Trancers idea. They wrote a fantastic script and we were shortly making the movie.

“Helen Hunt was certainly not a star at the time although she had worked since she was a little kid. Her father was a friend of my dad, so I'm not sure exactly how Helen came to us but after we had cast Tim, we cast Helen and it all happened very quickly. I directed it; it was one of the few movies during that period that I actually did have from soup to nuts, which is exactly what I'm doing now. Even at the time, I thought - it was low budget, shot over very few days - 'This is a cool movie.' It's one of the pictures that I'm definitely the proudest of.

“I directed the sequel - the other sequels, other people directed them - and it became a little bit more of a soap opera but it was still fun and Helen came back and we had a few other people. The third one, another fellow directed and it wasn't so bad. Helen, even though she was involved in Mad About You and becoming very popular and wealthy and a supercool chick, she came back and spent a few days making Trancers III. Then everything after that was farmed out. We shot two in Romania. None of the original creative people, including myself, were much involved and the series petered out. But definitely I'm happy with the first two."

With these long-running series, is there a law of diminishing returns or does it get to a point where you have a set audience who you know will buy a Trancers or Puppet Master film whatever it's like?
"Well, it is diminishing returns. Puppet Master is in a class of its own because it has such a following and even the sequels are popular. A lot of people said: if you were just into trying to be more successful and make more money, what you should have done is just stay in the Puppet Master business. Make one every year, develop more merchandise, do a video game, basically build that franchise up. But I never did that, I made the ones I made and maybe that's enough. Even the last one which was more of a rehash and primarily used existing footage because a lot of the fans were asking: 'How do all seven or eight of these make any sense?' So we stitched together something that explained that as best we could and shot a little new footage.

“Anyway Puppet Master was something of a phenomenon as a direct-to-video success. The first one was made in 1990. The other ones were definitely diminishing returns. The other series that really has its fans, and I chose not to make any more just because of my loyalty to Ted Nicolau who is a friend and a wonderful director - I would hate to cheapen in any way the quality of the Subspecies series. There are a lot of fans and yes, I could make the next Subspecies here cheap in LA but it really doesn't deserve that. There may be a time when exchange rates are better, because they're really depressed right now, when we can go out and make another Subspecies movie and do it properly. There are a lot of fans out there and that may take a year or two but when that happens I'll be looking forward to that.

“Generally speaking, by the time you're on your second or third you're on diminishing returns and it's really not worth going on. It's fun when you have something that really works. Part of my idea, that I've never really been able to do, just because of the changing climate and companies that are here and then suddenly I'm with another company, but my idea with Full Moon - and we almost got there - was to create franchises with creatures and characters and dolls where we could eventually start teaming them up, much like comics do. That's why I did Dollman vs Demonic Toys which was fun, for what it was. It was a fun blend of two genres. That was a picture shot in six days. You always tell people: keep in mind the meagre means we had to make this. But it still had a certain magic and fun to it.

“There were others I wanted to do and had plans to do but were never able to do. So hopefully with Wizard, whether it's the new characters we're creating or bringing back a few of the ones that have withstood the test of time, we can start doing some of that. It's fun when you mix two genres and you battle characters and creatures against each other."

I always thought it was a shame that Dollman only did those two movies, or three if you include the epilogue to Bad Channels. It was a nice character.
"He is the absolute top of my list, I'll let you know, to bring back in a Wizard movie. Of course I'll have to cast a new actor. But he's a great little character, he works well, at least in the dimension of the toys and the puppets I'm creating. I like the whole spin on that. So that's definitely something I'd like to do. That's a little more pricey, the effects involved are a little out of our budget range now. So much of this unfortunately is driven by finance and what can we or can we not afford. If it was just about 'let's see what crazy stuff we can do', that would be like heaven. But it's always about 'what can we do, and now what can we afford'."

As well as dolls and tiny people, the other recurring theme in your work is disembodied flying heads: Shrunken Heads and Dollman and so on.
"I'd like to do more of those actually. Shrunken Heads was unfortunately a movie that didn't quite know its target audience. It's skewed kind of young. My original script was very nasty and cutting edge. I was involved with Paramount at the time. It plays well, it's got some wonderful moments, but if I could go back I would have made it a very hard R-rated movie and created three characters that would have continued on because it's a pretty unique idea - and still is. So who knows, maybe I'll bring them back. It's just another way to have some fun in the pretty bizarre world we live in.

“I have tried always to stay well in the fantasy realm because I've found that kids growing up, they know that these movies - with a few exceptions like Tourist Trap or Castle Freak - while they're not silly enough to be stupid, in some cases they're pretty well made for small movies, but gross as they may be, it's all in the realm of fantasy. There's no slasher, there's nothing hopefully that reminds people too much of what horrible things are going on in the world today that you can catch on the news every night."

I have to ask you about Troll because I have already interviewed director John Carl Buechler and writer Ed Naha. Where did Troll come from?
"I had, and still have, a wonderful relationship with John Buechler and things were going great at Empire. I forget who actually came up with the name of the movie. It doesn't much matter. I wanted to do that kind of a film. John and I were on the set of another film - Ghoulies possibly - and we were talking about it. This is years ago but I certainly do remember the production side because once John and I worked a deal out and he came in with a treatment and then Ed Naha wrote the script, and I gave them some ideas of things I wanted to do and together we created this fantasy world.

“Then it came time to make it. Of course John was busy creating all sorts of weird little puppets and creatures and we really wound up with a completely bizarre and eclectic cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sonny Bono - poor guy has passed away - it was a strange cast. At the time the young kid who was the lead was very hot because he was in The Neverending Story which was a big, big success. It had June Lockhart in it and Phil Fondacaro, who I literally just finished a film with; Phil and I, I don't know how many movies we've done together but I'm sure it's over a dozen. We're making this movie in Italy and I also remember very fondly that my dad was involved in producing the film. He passed away a few years ago; we were very close and he was a great guy.

“It was just wonderful. I look back and it was a moment in time when I had a studio in Italy, we were making big movies. I just wish things had continued because everything changed, business changed, money changed, the dollar got weak against the lira, everything blew in the wrong direction. For a few wonderful years we shot these Empire movies that looked very American but were all shot outside Rome in Italy. I remember them very fondly, whether it was crazy Klaus Kinski in Crawlspace or one of the Trancers shows or Troll or Eliminators, which we shot in Spain. Seven or eight movies that are all part of that and probably Troll is the one that I'm most attached to. It did pretty well and people liked it and now years later people are reminding me of the name of the main character."

It's bizarre, isn't it? You have a young boy named Harry Potter who discovers that he has magical powers and uses them to fight a troll.
"I've heard that JK Rowling has acknowledged that maybe she saw this low-budget movie and perhaps it inspired her. Who knows what the story is? Life's too short for a fight as far as I'm concerned but, having said that, there are certain scenes in that movie, not to mention the name of the main character, and this of course predates the Harry Potter books by many, many years. So there's that strange connection."

The Dungeonmaster was a try-out of several different directors.
"It was a fun idea. I've always done things a little differently and we had a number of directors at the time who all wanted to direct features. We were getting pretty prolific and it was exactly that. I think there were seven directors, if I'm not mistaken. There were more that we were actually looking at but seven wound up directing seven little chapters in this Dungeonmaster film. I would have to think real hard to remember who directed what, but that's what happens. We made a strange little film.

“It's actually a fun film to watch. Part of what low-budget films suffer from is you usually are relegated to one location because that's all you can afford. Unless you are really adept at story-telling and casting, you need to make these movies much more character-driven. Dungeonmaster's one of those films which diverts you with seven or eight different environments. If nothing else, it certainly looks colourful! It made a great trailer, that's for sure."

Do you still have the rights to all these movies?
"Some yes and some no. I have the rights to my movies from the seventies and the nineties. The eighties is a little spartan and I wish I did because there's certainly a dozen of them that I'd love to bring the themes back. In some cases I guess I could because I have the underlying rights but, for example, in the case of Troll I have literary rights and I have sequel rights but I don't have the rights to the movie. If the movie gets released - by MGM here and I'm not sure who's bringing it out in the UK, depends on who we sold it to at the time - but each movie's different. The collection is all different and I would have to look at a specific film. Trancers is an example, even though it was made then and you would think it would fit into that, I retain those rights for some weird reason. So it's different every time, but unfortunately some of them are no longer mine to do anything with."

We'll wrap it there and do part two of this interview soon. Hopefully we can come up with the pretty definitive Charles Band career article.
"I feel I'm about halfway through it so we'll see what the next thirty years brings. But certainly, for the moment at least, I feel I'm on the right track with Wizard. Four movies in the can. I conceived them, I directed them. There are action figures coming out. It really feels at last that it sort of makes sense. Maybe in a year from now that will change but for the moment it feels good."

What are the new movies? There's The Gingerdead Man...
"There's Decadent Evil. There's a picture called Doll Graveyard I just finished making. I'm really proud of that one, it looks terrific. Then there's one that I've got most of it shot - I've got to go back for about a week of photography. It doesn't involve puppets but there are four great creature/monsters. It's called Dead Man's Hand and it's about a haunted casino.”

interview originally posted 21st January 2007
Continue to part 2

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