Saturday 10 January 2015

interview: George Romero

This is the 800th post on my blog, so I've dug something special out of the archive. This is a phone interview that I did with the legendary George Romero in February 1997 to tie in with the VHS release of the 'Directors' Cut' of Dawn of the Dead. The interview ran in SFX but as always I had to edit it down to fit. This is the never-before-seen full transcript.

What's in the director's cut, why is it right now and not before?
"Complicated question. What is being released now is literally the first cut that we made, the first thing that we ever printed. And we did it to try to attract distribution. In other words, we did it basically completely independently. We shot the film, cut it, scored it. And Dario Argento at the time had the right to make his own cut on the picture; that was just part of the original deal. So he was off doing his cut and he was also going to go and record music from this group Goblin. And we were each of us allowed to choose. If I wanted to use the Goblin - great. If I didn't want to, I didn't have to. So we had three or four of the Goblin cuts, which is all that was recorded at the time, and I put three or four little cuts of it in this version and the rest of it in here is library stuff.

"Basically, what's on this version is everything that we thought was executed successfully enough to stand a chance of getting in the film. It was basically a cut that I felt was a little long here and there. Frankly, I've lost track. Even when we were doing the commentary I don't remember which of the scenes were cut out. It was mostly shaving: little bits here and there. They let us release the film here at, I don't know, about two hours seven minutes or something like that. I don't know what this runs. But it's mostly just little shaves here and there, and a few of the scenes, like one of the scenes when Fran and Stephen are having dinner, it's a little longer now. It's mostly like that. I think there were a few of the effects scenes that were particularly scrappy that we wound up taking out.

"There's nothing sensational in here - this isn't The Gorier Stuff because that was all in the original! At least, in the American version. I know in the UK there was some cutting or some censorship or whatever. We actually showed this to a couple of audiences, we rented a couple of theatres in New York and invited distributors to come and watch the screenings in an attempt to attract distributors. We put a little ad in the paper and said: 'We're going to show Dawn of the Dead, sequel to Night of the Living Dead.' We had packed houses both times and we just watched and decided what would make a better film. It was really just the process of editing it that brought it down.

"There were no requests by censors because United Film released it unrated here in the United States, so we didn't have to deal with that. And they didn't put any pressures on us, other than to say that they'd like it to be a little shorter. But really, to say that, I think this version plays a little long here and there. And it's mostly just 'take a breath out there', 'take this out here'. A lot of it is just that. There's nothing really new in this version that the gore fans are going to think 'W-o-o-ow!!!' So to that extent, I don't know whether it's going to disappoint or what. That's the difference."

Night of the Living Dead was very different to other 1960s horror films such as Hammer horror pictures. Were you dissatisfied with the gothic horrors of the time?
"Yes, I guess there was a real movement. It wasn't just us; it was Tobe Hooper and all those I Spit On Your Grave movies. There was a sort of subculture. And there were comic books and so forth that were going back to the more nitty-gritty, more EC kind of horror that's neither gothic nor sex-dependent nor spectacle or whatever else you want to call it. It's just the roots kind of horror. I don't want to say Twilight Zone but I don't know what exactly to relate it to in film or on TV. But yeah, we were just trying to do that. It was also all we could do within the confines of the budget. But we were perfectly happy with it because we thought it was going back to the roots somehow."

Did you expect NOTLD to be a big hit or just a small start in feature films?
"That's exactly what we thought. We thought it would be picked up and it would go out to neighbourhood theatres and drive-in theatres. There were probably hundreds of little horror films that were being made on a hundred grand, two hundred grand - even by the smaller studios out there - that were in the drive-ins every weekend here. That's what we thought. We thought: 'We'll make it for a hundred; we'll get back five ... and then we'll make five more!' That's really all we expected. Then all of a sudden people started to talk about it and write about it.

"Actually it went out and on that circuit it was pretty successful and it did return about $500,000. And that's the only money that it ever returned, because in its whole afterlife and so forth, people stopped reporting; we wound up in courts with them; there was a copyright dispute. It was just terrible - although from what I understand a very typical - young film-maker's experience. Getting knocked off, and all that. But atypical to the extent that it went out and it came back to life like the zombies. It had this incredible afterlife in France, and once that happened of course, people here had to start looking at it. And it was invited into the Museum of Modern Art and so forth. I'm sitting there going, 'My God!!!'

"I think it's a combination of circumstances. I don't think it's sterling film-making. We were just feeling our way and we were restricted so much budgetarily and so forth that I think it has a kind of naive integrity. And I think some of the choices: like a couple of weeks into the shooting when we started to raise money, we talked about reshooting what we'd already done and starting over in 16mm and going colour. Because everyone was saying, 'Wow! You really should do it in colour.' And we decided to stay with black and white. I grew up with black and white films. When I was growing up, in those impressionable years, even the news was in black and white. So black and white has always been a bit more realistic to me than colour! The most effective blood image I've ever seen is Marlon Brando's face in On The Waterfront when he gets beaten up. There's something about black and white that, to me, just plays more realistically. And I also just happen to love the monochromatic."

I understand that you had to use chocolate sauce as blood because the fake blood wouldn't photograph properly in black and white.
"Yes, we wound up using chocolate sauce."

It makes it a whole lot less scary when you know that. What did you think of all the dodgy European zombie films that followed?
"What do I think? I don't know. I guess I've largely ignored them. I didn't like the Return of the Living Dead films. Most of that stuff happened, I think, more after Dawn. The real glut came after Dario's version came out. I didn't pay a heck of a lot of attention to them. If there were a couple of good ones I'd love to check them out. But I just never really paid a lot of attention to it."

How did you first get to meet Argento?
"They approached us. I knew his work. Through a guy named Alfredo Cuomo - he's now a TV producer in Italy - who had picked up my film The Crazies for distribution in Italy. He contacted us about whether or not I wanted to make a sequel to Night because Dario Argento was a big fan and was interested in providing some of the finance. At the time I had just decided that it would probably be a good idea. Two things happened: we knew the people that owned this shopping mall and I was actually talking to them about financing the film. They were showing me around the mall and they actually had this survival space there which was equipped with civil defence stuff and all that. I just said, 'Wow! That would be perfect.'

"I had also just gotten the idea - gotten the conceit, I guess - that gee, it would be nice to do one of these things for every decade and try to reflect the attitude of the times. Instead of doing a direct sequel and having the same characters, just sort of continue to show what's happening in the world, while this phenomenon is going on. And try to give each one a different personality which might reflect the socio-political attitudes of the times."

Does that mean that you might return to the series?
"I'd love to do a '90s one, actually! I really would love to do it. the problem is making a deal. There are so many people now with fingers in the pie - ownership, rights, one thing or another - that it's really very hard to put a deal together. So I don't know that it's ever going to happen. I'd love to. I've expressed my desire and willingness to all the players. But everyone wants 51%!"

I understand Day of the Dead was planned to have whole battalions of zombies, but had to be scaled down. How much of your original idea made it in there?
"Many of the concepts and the ideas and the discussions in it are basically the same as in the bigger film. It's just really the circumstances that scaled it down and just used the underground city. The other thing, it was all above ground, there were living quarters for most of the humans, and compounds with electrical fences and so forth. And they were in fact farming the zombies and trying to train them and keep them outside the compounds. so it's really just the scale of it that changed more than anything else. We just weren't able to raise the money. It was budgeted at about $7 million. And we were told that if you want to leave it unrated, you can't spend more than three. So I just went and rewrote it."

How dangerous is it releasing unrated films in America? It's not something we have in the UK.
"It's not an option here either! I don't know. Until Dawn, the only stuff that was coming out unrated was like Richard Pryor concert films, stand-up films. And films that were totally benign. Dawn was maybe the first - but if not, one of the first - that tried to do it. At that time, it did well. It didn't really have an effect. Because people weren't quite as up in arms as they are now. Even when Day came out, it didn't work as well.

"Because by that time, you were so restricted as to what you could do - not just the film industry but theatre owners and the press and television. So you can't advertise. In other words, it's considered an X-rated film. There are all sorts of external constrictions on advertising and distribution and so forth and exhibition. So it's really kind of a death-blow. Unless something is so inexpensive and is going to have a long life, like Night of the Living Dead say, and can play little theatres here and there and make its money back, it's pretty tough."

How have the changes in exhibition affected the way you make films? Drive-ins have largely gone, but now you've got TV rights and video rights and so on.
"That hasn't really affected anything, because most of the companies that are putting up money - certainly advance money - for that kind of stuff, are basically owned by big companies, and it's tough! The outlets haven't provided the film-maker with any freedom. they've just provided the studio or the producing entity with some insurance. It's very weird, because for example if you make a deal with a company that has a video arm that releases the film on video: in your contract, as far as the percentages or the back-end that you're supposed to get from video, you don't get the flack.

"You're dealing with one company, and you say okay, you're supposed to get 25%. And even though it's the same company releasing the video, the film financing group only gets 20% back from the video arm of that company, so now you're only getting 25% of 20%! You're just getting knocked off, basically. I keep saying that if any company could see its way to giving film-makers a fair shake, everyone would flock to their door. it's really, really very hard unless you're a big star and they know they're going to want you again next time."

Have you seen much of the stuff being made by young directors nowadays?
"I've not seen much of it, no. I've been disappointed so many times that I've given up on it. I don't know. There was a whole phase with Band, when there was Re-Animator and there was some good little things coming out there. I don't know; maybe some of that stuff is happening again on video. A guy named Bob Schnell - I saw a couple of films which he did which I thought were very nice."

Do you think something like NOTLD could get made nowadays?
"I'd say so, yes. We went back to Cannes last Spring for the first time in eight years, my wife and I and some other people that we're working with. I'm back in touch with some of the guys like Ben Barenholtz and people who are interested in doing little independent stuff. because I'd love to get back into it. I'm so frustrated with the Hollywood system. I've been in development for ... five years! Literally we're going into the sixth year of development on one project and it's just driving me nuts! So I'm thinking, within the genre I could become the genre's version of John Sayles. Which is: make my money writing and go out and make little films."

What is this thing that's been stuck in development hell?
"It's a ghost story that we've been trying to get made for years. It's been at MGM, now it's at Fox. And it's just at that budget level where they think it's star-dependent. So okay, you need to attract stars, so you have to rewrite for so-and-so. Or we have to rewrite so that we can attract someone. All the stuff that you read about in those little This is Hollywood books - really happens! Those meetings really happen. And then of course it's months between phases because you submit a draft, and everybody's too busy to respond. the producer on this film is Chris Columbus - we lost him for about six months because he was making Jingle All the Way!

"So you just get tired of spinning your wheel. I've got 14 screenplays and haven't shot a frame of film, except for a little thing that I did down in Florida - at a film school! Just very very frustrating. But thank God I get the gigs. You get the job to write it and by the time you've finished and have a draft that everybody likes, there's a whole new management team at the studio that doesn't like it! It's just unbelievable. If you're not on the A-list, particularly now with this blockbuster mentality. I think that's the thing. It's not only that there aren't small distributors any more, there's almost no such thing as a small film. That's why everyone is going to video; because if you make an $8 million film at a studio, they/re not going to care about it. They're not going to put it on the main release schedule, you're not going to get the good dates because they have those reserved for Independence Day or Twister or whatever else is coming up next. That's all anyone cares about out there. The twenty-or-so bankable stars are involved in those twenty projects, and everything else is the evening trade."

I saw you recently in a TV show about David Cronenberg. What are your thoughts about the 'moral panic' that films like Crash generate? Does it worry you?
"Er ... Yes. But it worries me more sociologically than it does in a career sense. It worries me more as a phenomenon. It's just like we're going back to racism, we're going back to militarism, we're turning into rednecks over here, man! So it worries me that way. It's just disheartening. But in a career sense, luckily I'm at this point where studios will continue to hire me. The stuff that I'm doing - anything that a studio hires you to do is not going to be on that borderline anyway. I have a couple of independent things that I've written that are on that edge. We're trying to get some finance. I don't know; I think we'll probably do it with a combination of European financing and independent financing. I'm not particularly worried that way."

You've done a couple of films based on works by Stephen King. What's he like as a subject to deal with?
"I used to think he was the greatest yarn-spinner in the world but that there was enough logic in his work that it was forgivable. It's very hard for me to talk about it because he's a good friend. But I think that he might be getting a bit self-indulgent. I shouldn't say that, actually. One night we had a combination and Steve said, 'How frustrating it is. I could sit down and I could pore over something and I could write it well. But I'll never get it published if I put it out under any name except mine. Really, I'm paid to write excrement!' I think he has many many underlying frustrations over the fact that he's become Stephen King the Phenom. As a result I think he winds up throwing some pies in the readers faces."

Somebody reckons you've got the rights to do a film version of The Stand.
"No, that's not true. They made that for television. But we did. It was my ex-partner Steve Rubinstein who made the TV series. When Steve and I first met, Stephen gave me, the very first night we met we were talking about Salem's Lot. Warner Brothers sent me up to Maine to talk to him because they wanted me to make Salem's Lot. Typical studio response: they saw Martin at Sundance and said, 'Gee! Vampires in a small town! This guy would be good for Salem's Lot.' So we did that dance for a while and the studio then decided that they weren't going to do it. They were going to let it go for television - that was the safest financial approach to take.

"But in the course of it they sent me up to Maine. My wife and I went up and we hung out with Steve. But then when we left he gave me a copy of The Stand and said, 'Let's make this movie some day.' He wrote that in there. And so years later we wound up getting together with Steve on a couple of other projects. And he did give us the rights. And he wrote a screenplay and I worked on it with him, and it was all very friendly. Except that at that time, Steve didn't want to go TV with it, which would have given him more running time. He also didn't want to soften it for television. He didn't want to trade off, to soften it for running time. He said he would rather do a film. He wanted to do a three-hour film.

"His script was geared as a three-hour script, it wasn't in any way softened. It was just very, very hard - heck no, it was impossible to get financing and it never happened. So then years later they decided to do it for TV. But I don't have the rights to any King material now. My partner still does. He keeps on cranking them out; he did Thinner. He just did a little film, a privately financed thing called Night Flier. Steve is now remaking The Shining. He's producing it himself - I guess he really didn't like that movie!"

Are there any books you would like to film?
"I've seen a couple. I always look into the rights, and they're either gone - one of them was The Relic. I went after that and they'd already been bought. Usually by the time that I see the stuff, there's either a prepublication deal or whatever. But I've seen a few things. There's a book called Earth Abides."

By George RR Martin.
"Yes. Those rights are gone, but I was actually talking to the producers. But I don't think I'll get it - I don't think I'll get the job. Every time I see something that takes my fancy I'll try to go after it. But the good stuff usually gets grabbed up before I ever get to see it."

As a director/screenwriter, do you prefer original work or adaptations?
"I prefer originals. I wrote the screenplay for Creepshow 2 which was an adaptation of Steve's. Which was hard for me because of the friendship and because of not wanting to step on anybody's ideas. Then I adapted a novel called Monkey Shines which was also tough because I get a little too
worried about: 'Well, what's this guy going to think? Whose is this anyway? Do I have the right to change it this radically?'"

Why did you feel the need to do an anthology TV series? What did Tales from the Darkside have that The Twilight Zone didn't?
"I don't know that it wasn't done. I mean, Twilight Zone was quite a while ago, and I thought that the reincarnations of it never worked. I didn't even think that Night Gallery worked very well. Outer Limits and Twilight Zone I guess are my faves, the original versions. At the time, everybody that was doing it was doing it without real affection. Amazing Stories I thought was just a blunder from top to bottom."

It wasn't amazing and it had no stories in it.
"And loving the genre, we were just approached by a group who said, 'What about if you did a TV series?' And I said, 'Hey, sure.' I liked it too, I thought it was very well-intentioned. I was not involved at all in production. My partner Richard at the time was leaning more towards television, and I thought if it's in syndication and if we have a considerable amount of freedom, which we wound up getting contractually, it would be fun to do this. Initially, we had a wonderful story editor called Tom Allen, who used to be a writer for The Voice, who unfortunately passed away. I think that the first batch of shows was the best and it went downhill from there.

"I wrote the pilot, and I think I wrote three or four of the other episodes, which was really fun. It was like short story writing. A couple of them were actually based on stories that were bought, but a couple of them were originals. I was able to take a couple of ideas that I had that I couldn't figure out how to make them weighty enough for a feature, and was able to bang them out and have fun with them. To me, that's what it was. And I think Tom and the production team and a couple of the young directors in the early couple of seasons, really did a human job with it. Basically it was Tom Allen that kept the stories on track and really had a story focus. I liked that. So it was fun. I feel pretty good about most of the Darkside."

Was Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie just stories that were left over from the TV series?
"I don't even know, frankly. The one that I wrote? Um, yes! Again, it was very frustrating for me. I should say that there's an underside to this. I wound up really angry over the way they decided to produce this. I wanted to do it in Pittsburgh, try to really just do a classier job with the whole thing. That's why I ended up not being at all involved in the production of it. By the time the second year came along, I was pretty frustrated with it. I didn't want the movie to happen; I was obligated to do it under my contract with the company. I'll say again: you never mind sitting and writing something - it's always like stroking yourself! That part of it's fine, but I wound up being unhappy with the whole situation. Not with the show. I really think that particularly the first twenty, or whatever that first batch was, were pretty good."

Was that series, like Creepshow, influenced by your interest in EC comics?
"I guess, yeah. I guess everything was. I just think that had we had a little more wherewithal - Tales from the Darkside came out and hit with Tales from the Crypt; that had the clout and a little more class - that we might have been more successful with it. And the same thing with Creepshow. Had they spent the extra 500 grand or whatever, and had we got one of the better artists instead of Jack Kamen, little frustrations like that."

Which of your movies are you completely happy with?
"The only one that I'm almost completely happy with is Martin. The only thing that bothers me is that there was a longer cut and I wanted it released in black and white. Unfortunately I made the typical mistake of believing the distributor when he said" 'You know what? What does it hurt to shoot a colour negative? And we can print in black and white and rebuild it with contrasts.' So we went ahead and did that. We had originally printed it in black and white and had a print of a cut that I thought was just much, much better. So I'm just slightly frustrated with it. Understand this was 275 grand and I think that the entire cast and crew combined numbered about 15 or 16 people. Yet, we were able to make, because everybody was pulling in the same direction, we really were pursuing the same goal. And it's the only film that I think I was able to make 85% of the shots that I actually wanted to make. That never happened again. So I really think the best sequence I've ever done is the sequence where he comes after a housewife and finds her with a guy and chases her round the house. It's the only sequence that I think really came out the way I had it in my head, the way I had it boarded, completely."

Why do things differ in production from the storyboards? Do you get a better idea, or are you constrained by time or money?
"All of the above! Wait a minute, you forgot: 'Here's the scene where Steve comes out of a door and I need him in the foreground of this shot. Oh shit, I didn't know he was here. I didn't bring his jacket. Well, can we wait ten minutes? No, we can't.' If you can imagine all the pieces that have to fall into place to make a shot, unless you're doing it like Martin and everything says: 'Well let's shoot something else instead.' Plus all the actors are there. 'Hey, let's do your shots instead.' And no-one cares, and you don't have call sheets.

"You never get that flexibility back until you're up at a hundred million bucks and you're James Cameron and you can say, 'Okay, if we can't do the shot now we'll do it next week.' That's really it. It's extraordinary that things even come out close. And the only times that they do is either on very small films or very very big films."

And you're trapped in the middle at the moment?
"Um, yes!"

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