Thursday 21 November 2013

interview: Piers Haggard

I interviewed director Piers Haggard by phone in 2003, one of several interviews conducted for a Fangoria retrospective feature on Blood on Satan’s Claw.

How did you become involved with Blood on Satan’s Claw?
"I had done a film, my first film which I don’t show on my CV any more, which is called Wedding Night. It had Dennis Waterman and Tessa Wyatt in it, it was written by an Irishman called Lee Dunne and produced by a man called Philip Krasne and it disappeared without trace. It was a story about sexual repression set in Dublin. I can’t remember the details now but I had an agent at the time and I guess we had a screening. Or maybe the producers, who were Peter Andrews and Malcolm Heyworth, had talked to my agent. But anyway, I remember there was a screening - and they came, and perhaps two other people - in a little theatre in Soho and they seemed to like it and said we’re doing this thing, would you be interested?

“So basically they saw my previous film. They had up to that point been talking about doing three stories. They’d done a short. For some peculiar reason they thought that to do a triple-bill - three stories, all low budget and with linked themes - would somehow be cheaper, or something. They could take the cost of their short and do it times three and it would all come out cheaper. They’d got this young guy Robert Wynne-Simmons to write the stories. All the key sequences, all the really meaty, good sequences, were in those three stories. But they had already decided, and I certainly did everything I could to persuade them to make it into one film, one story, just to allow it to breathe and be more ambitious and have more impact.

“We started then a non-stop process, which didn’t stop right up to shooting, of smoothing out the bumps. There are still a few bumps, like: what happens to Auntie? And you can sense it’s episodic, in the sense that the rape is the climax of the middle film and so on."

There are three well-defined acts which don’t really link properly.
"It’s rather overclear, yes. But anyway, we did our best. Seeing it recently, my saddest thought is that the ending doesn’t pull out the stops, it doesn’t top the rape."

It’s quite abrupt.
"It is quite abrupt, yes. It’s not really well handled, that. It’s narrowed down in a sense to the issue of Ralph. There’s another way in which we didn’t succeed in pulling it together. I wasn’t experienced enough at the time; I would know how to do it now. Making sure that all the strands come together. They don’t, they jump and suddenly you’re telling the story of Ralph and his leg. You kind of assume that the thing is all going on off-screen but you don’t really see it. So it’s not a continuous and flowing build, although it’s a pretty good continuous, flowing build to the end of act two, really. Because you see the kids involved and that’s getting nastier. But we did what we could and what we were able to do."

You get an ‘additional material’ script credit. How closely did you work with Robert Wynne-Simmons?
"Very, very closely. All the powerful, imaginative sequences of horror are Robert’s invention. Nothing was taken away in the credit from him for conceiving that sequence of experiences and images and the whole story. My writing contribution is entirely in the area of character, of character subtlety, trying to make family relationships resonate. Some of the non-action stuff is mine, like the kids wandering through the woods and you’re haunted by fears and anxieties and so on. That stuff is mostly mine, so that was my contribution, to try and thicken the texture, to make the characters more interesting."

How familiar were you with the horror genre when you worked on this?
"Not at all. That’s quite interesting. I had barely seen a horror film. I was frightfully serious. I had come out of the theatre, my background had been the Royal Court Theatre, National Theatre, and then I got into television in the middle 1960s. I had done quality television, Plays Department and things. I was fairly earnest and arty so I wasn’t really into genre. We didn’t talk about genre so much in those days anyway; everybody talks about genre now. But I wasn’t really into genre. I loved movies, but I love Satyajit Ray and Antonioni and so on."

Didn’t you work with Antonioni yourself?
"Yes, when he did Blow-Up in 1966 I was his assistant, in the sense that I was a sort of translation and dialogue assistant. He hired me to be his ears to the English acting, but I ended up translating for him a lot, explaining what he wanted to the English actors. He’d talk in French and I’d talk to them in English. So I had an absolutely fascinating job for about ten weeks of filming in the summer of 1966. So anyway, he obviously became a hero so I was very serious.

“I was offered this job and I thought, ‘I’d better find out,’ so I went to a few horror films and figured out what seemed to be essential. But I was determined to make it as it needed to be made. I didn’t want to breach the genre but I didn’t want to follow it under any sort of enslavement. I guess I was trying to make the thing seriously, as if it was real. Also, to me the countryside was terribly important. I grew up on a farm and it’s natural for me to use the countryside as symbols or as imagery. As this was a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me. I was trying to make a folk-horror film, I suppose. Not a campy one. I didn’t really like the Hammer campy style, it wasn’t for me really."

In many ways, Blood on Satan’s Claw is more like a historical drama than a horror film.
"That’s exactly right. I made it seriously. Mind you, it never made much money. It wasn’t a hit. From the very beginning it had minority appeal. A few people absolutely loved it but the audiences didn’t turn out for it."

Malcolm Heyworth remembered an NFT screening as ‘the most under-rated film of the year’.
"Yes, that’s right. I think I remember that. We got a wonderful review in the New York Times - Vincent Canby gave us a rave. When I went to work in the States in the late 1980s I met Jonathan Demme. In fact he signed my Director’s Guild of America application; it was signed by Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese and Alan Pakula. I’d done Pennies from Heaven just before. But Jonathan Demme remembered the film, Blood on Satan’s Claw. So it had its followers but it was never a mainstream audience hit."

What was your preferred title?
"It was initially The Devil’s Touch and then Satan’s Skin. I think Satan’s Skin is the best title. When it was sold to America, this wonderful old showman Sam Arkoff of AIP bought it and they released it as Blood on Satan’s Claw. Tony Tenser then changed the title and I thought that was a bit infra-dig, a bit naff. So I think Satan’s Skin was my favourite."

How involved was Tony Tenser with the production?
"Oh, correctly really. He was interested in the package. I remember meeting him early on. Apart from that he turned up twice on location. I don’t think he always saw the rushes, because we didn’t have video rushes then. I don’t remember him being any sort of problem. He set up the framework and one did one’s thing within the framework. But Malcolm would know more. They would have talked to him, I just got on with the film."

How did you choose your cast?
"Linda Hayden was under contract to Tony Tenser so she was part of a package really. The other people we just auditioned. Simon Williams was just a young actor. Tamara Ustinov, I thought the name would be useful; I think she’d done a couple of things. They had a tiny, tiny bit of marquee value, they were promising young actors. But Patrick Wymark was a big TV star, in The Plane-Makers and so on. He had been in Witchfinder General which had just opened, he had a small part in that. Every time I watch the film I’m more struck by his contribution. I just think that he did a wonderful job because he was able to give it, with his presence, a kind of philosophical resonance and a kind of dread. Scary possibilities and dark imaginings which it absolutely needed."

Was he difficult to direct?
"Not at all. Absolutely not. I don’t remember any problems at all. The whole thing was actually huge fun. I don’t remember any problems apart from working flat out and being tired. It was one of those projects that clicked and came together very nicely."

Shooting in the middle of nowhere must have been a pain.
"Some credit to the producers - they bit the bullet. We were based in Pinewood. Journey time always affects you and it was similar then, it was probably harder then because the limitations were probably stronger. You have your Pinewood base then your travel time to the location is calculated from Pinewood and even from Pinewood Henley is over an hour. And it’s a tricky location because you couldn’t get the whole unit in; we had to have a base down the road and ferry people in. Do you know that area? It’s called Bix Bottom. It’s a nature reserve which is why it’s unspoiled. It was quite a small budget film, not huge, but there was always stuff to organise. So most of the locations were there. Obviously the house interior is in the studio. The schoolhouse interior’s a studio. The barn is very near Pinewood, then there’s a bit of Black Park which is the lake."

One of the film’s strengths is Dick Bush’s marvellous cinematography.
"I told you that I was really in love with nature and filming nature was always important to me but he certainly taught me a lot. The basic imagery was that he used a lot of very dark foregrounds, trees and so on, and then the action was set away in light. That motif comes up a lot. He was a tricky chap actually, but perfectly nice. He made a huge contribution and taught me a lot and deserves much credit."

The music is also fabulous.
"It is a great score. Mark Wilkinson I had worked with at the National Theatre. He did an absolutely famous and outstanding score for a production of the Peter Shaffer play The Royal Hunt of the Sun about the Aztecs and Atahualpa in 1964-ish. So I knew him from the National Theatre as somebody who had a wonderful command of strange sounds. He wasn’t somebody who would ever give you a stock sound. And I think he absolutely excelled himself. It’s certainly one of the best scores I’ve ever had for a film. Every time I hear it you can see the contribution it makes."

When did you start to realise that Blood on Satan’s Claw was developing a cult following?
"I can’t remember - except that dotted around those years, the 1970s and 1980s, one would bump into people or read something. Then it started popping up every two or three years late at night on ITV in a horror season. People would say, ‘Oh, I saw your film again.’ But the real cult thing is really only in the last year or two. They’re doing a DVD; I’ve just done the commentary track for the DVD. DVD is actually bringing a lot of films back to life which is great, it’s really nice. I did both DVD tracks, one for that and one for a film I did called Venom, on the same day at the same place so they’re both part of the same package."

Is there anything else going on the DVD apart from commentary and trailer?
"No, I don’t think there was ever a ‘making of’. It was a very small, modest operation. I think that’s all they have, as far as I know. But we had Robert Wynne-Simmons and Linda Hayden and me doing the commentary."

After Blood you seem to have gone back to TV for the rest of the 1970s.
"Yes. I was talking about doing another horror film with David Niven Jr who was a film executive who has since left the business and gone into restaurants in Hollywood - but he was an exec, an independent, in London at that time. He saw Blood on Satan’s Claw and he loved it. He had another project, another horror film, which we talked about for a while but nothing ever happened. And it was just about then - I’m sure the figures will confirm this - in 1972 that all the Americans packed up in Wardour Street and went home. They had been here in force from the late 1960s with the renaissance of British cinema. They had all been here and a lot of product had been made. It was in the 1970s, it may have been something to do with the pound-dollar ratio."

Didn’t the Edy Levy finish around then?
"Maybe that’s it. Anyway it was also in the 1970s that Hollywood really came on with some really interesting, contemporary, location-set films. They started making movies about society in a direct, vivid way. So they all just left and that particular project fell and nothing else came up. I guess because my film hadn’t been a mainstream hit, it was rather specialised. So I went back to the telly, that’s quite right, and I had a very interesting 1970s in television. I finished with Pennies from Heaven and immediately after then Quatermass."

That must have been daunting because there had been a very long gap since the Quatermass serials of the 1960s which were watched by just about everyone in the country.
"I had seen some of those. I didn’t feel overawed - perhaps I should have! - by that particularly. It was just a rather interesting project and intelligent. I like science fiction. That was a genre, I suppose, that I’ve always had more affection for. There were some good ideas."

Were you involved in cutting the TV series down to the feature version?
"We did the two at the same time or one then the other. It’s quite interesting that Nigel Kneale - Tom Kneale - who is a really professional writer, he had worked this out. There were two scripts so we didn’t just do it in the cutting room. He had worked out how we could leave out a whole strand of story. I think it’s a trip to London though I haven’t seen it for years. You could leave it out and get down to our 109 minutes from the original 200. It was quite a strain though. Without that we would have been completely stuck but even with that it was still a strain. But we just did one then the other."

Then you did one of Peter Sellers’ last films.
"I did his last film."

Wasn’t The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu made after Being There but released before it, or vice versa?
"I would be surprised. I think that Being There had come out. It was made after Being There and that was part of the problem because Being There was such a good film and it was serious. He wasn’t being funny at the time: the darkness, that lugubrious comedy of Being There which worked so well.

“It was a very disagreeable experience on that film. I was brought in on an off-chance. He’d agreed to do a fairly stock Hollywood comedy thriller, similar to The Pink Panther really, playing a detective and a villain. And he’d fallen out of love with that project and didn’t want to do that script. They said, ‘Okay, what do you want to do?’ and he said, ‘Let me go off and do a bit of rewriting.’ So he went off with a Hollywood hack and turned it into a series of Goon Show sketches. The executives were absolutely appalled. They thought, ‘Oh my God, we thought he had a picture and now we’ve got a development situation.’ I knew one of them, so they said, ‘Maybe this guy Haggard could do something with this.’

“So I got three weeks’ work to supervise a rewrite, which we did. We made Peter’s script much more coherent, turned it into something with a bit more of a beginning, middle and end. And they were very pleased with that so I got the gig. But then unfortunately within about two weeks my love affair with Peter Sellers was over but I had to soldier on. I did soldier on but it was no fun, absolutely no fun. Then just towards the end of the shooting he decided, which had been obvious, that either he would go or I would go so they got rid of me. I didn’t have much choice. So I was retired and he directed for the last week or so. It was pretty much a disaster from beginning to end."

After that came Venom with Oliver Reed.
"After that came Venom which I also took over. I took over that at very short notice. Tobe Hooper had been directing it and they had stopped for whatever reason. It hadn’t been working. I did see some of his stuff and it didn’t look particularly good plus he also had some sort of nervous breakdown or something. So anyway they stopped shooting and offered it to me. Unfortunately I had commitments, I had some commercials to shoot. But anyway I took it over with barely ten days of preparation - which shows. It doesn’t become my picture, it’s a bit inbetween."

How was Oliver Reed to work with?
"Scary at first because he was always testing you all the time. Difficult but not as difficult as Klaus Kinski. Because Oliver actually had a sense of humour. I was rather find of him; he could be tricky but he was quite warm really. He just played games and was rather macho and so on. Klaus Kinski was very cold. The main problem with the film was that the two didn’t get on and they fought like cats. Kinski of course is a fabulous film actor and he’s good in the part, the part suits him very well. They were both well cast but it was a very unhappy film. I think Klaus was the problem but then Oliver spent half the movie just trying to rub him up, pulling his leg all the way. There were shouting matches because Oliver just wouldn’t let up. None of this is about art. All the things that you’re trying to concentrate on tend to slip. So it was not a happy period.”

interview originally posted 5th June 2008


  1. Hi there. I'm trying to cite your interview with Piers for an essay I'm writing on Folk Horror. I was wondering do you know what issue of Fangoria this interview was originally published in? A page number would be fantastic as well too so I can properly reference you. The most I've found online just references this interview and the year of its publication - 2003

  2. It’s actually the March 2004 edition, no.230, pp70-75, with the Dawn of the Dead remake on the cover. So I probably did the actual interviews with Piers Haggard and others in 2003. Here's the version of that issue:

    1. Fantastic! Thanks for getting back to me so quickly!