Saturday 23 November 2013

interview: John R Hand

After my attempt to review the apostrophe-free oddity that is Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, I knew that I needed to find out from the writer/director/producer John R Hand precisely what was going on in the film. He sent these detailed answers to my e-mailed questions in November 2006. (John subsequently directed the equally bizarre Scars of Youth.)

What were you trying to achieve with this movie and how well do you think you managed it?
“I'm not exactly sure how to answer those questions because obviously I set out with numerous goals in mind and I probably wouldn't let the film be seen if I didn't think I'd achieved what I wanted to make on some level. Ultimately I would like FBN to be viewed as a kind of descent into the madness of this one person, Victor, who may or may not be a doctor and he may or may not have a lab or a girlfriend/wife/love interest or anything really. It's ultimately hard to tell, because the audience is viewing the entire film through the weird, skewed perception of Victor's mind and it's almost as if he's on this faraway planet that exists in its own space and time, a little too bright and fuzzy, never quite coalescing into something which could sustain someone enough to live a normal life. So there's this inner journey which he goes through and the film is basically about kind of excavating this artefact of his broken consciousness and trying to find out all these things in his life that are weighing him down, his unusual relationship with his family and how he sees the world.

“That is basically what the film is about, but the concept started out more as a conventional film about a series of murders linked to a mysterious medical facility and there were far more noticeably horrific production elements on display throughout the film - more of everything and basically just more ‘explicit’ in its design on a fundamental level. Then certain things began to happen, like I realised very early on that I just couldn't build the sets I wanted and get the actors I needed so everything began to become more pared-down and cerebral and smaller as I realised this whole scenario is playing out within the dark, black hole of Victor's brain. Also I chose to play the Victor character myself so I was constantly getting into the psyche of that character in a very direct way and it was influencing the film. Eventually the film took on some very autobiographical touches but I still think it's a fairly accessible movie in many ways.

“One of the elements of this film which I think survived my first rough outline all the way to the finished product was this concept of starting the audience out in a conventional mode with this very standard scenario of mad doctors, murder and grave-robbing and then by the mid-point taking a blowtorch to that crystalline structure and letting the whole thing evaporate because the whole scenario is presented through the filter of Victor's warped brain, a downward spiral into oblivion. That always stayed there, but I think in the end I didn't have the means to really build a conventional first act so the film is pretty strange all the way through, though I did manage to fortunately set up a lot of conventional things very early on in order to have them pay off on far more stranger level later on, so in that sense I was happy about with the structure.

“So from a standpoint of achieving what I set out to do with FBN I think the film works in its own way but it is a kind of square peg in a world of round holes. I guess I'm fooling myself and it's always been a round hole world. I think one thing which has gotten me in trouble with this movie is that the title very subtly announces that this film is going to be a round peg and most people don't like this kind of weirdo false advertising, especially a film which very early on in the narrative announces to the audience that it's not going to be easy going (which is again a problem with that first act) but I stand by the film's structure and tone and I think that if you took something out of the equation and tried to make it different it might lose some of its resonance, but obviously I'm very biased about it.”

What is Cinechrome 70 and what were your ideas behind the way that the film is lit and shot?
“I guess the entire film in some ways grew out of my interest in Super-8 film. Years ago I'd bought tons of S8 gear at thrift stores and junk sales and then as I went to school and moved on I just shelved all that stuff because there really wasn't anything I could do with all this garbage as a little kid with no place to process or buy film. Then last year a friend of mine conned me into transferring some of his old home movies to mini-DV - nothing fancy, just simple off-the-wall transfers from an old projector - but something about the quality of the film and how well it looked put me back in touch with the format and I thought to myself very quietly, ‘Gee, there's something to this.’ So I got back from this guy's place and I resolved to put together a tiny horror film around the concept that I would shoot it in Kodachrome Super-8 in order to give it ‘a vintage feel’ because I immediately recognised that quality in S8, the fact that anything you shot on it immediately looked ancient, especially using an outmoded colour process like Kodachrome which is actually similar to Technicolor in the sense that the colour isn't in the film because the film itself is basically three black-and-white films. So Super-8 became a vehicle to use in order to tell a very worn-out story in a different visual way.

“As the film progressed a number of things changed however. As I said earlier the budget and time didn't really allow me to track down all the production elements I thought I needed and then I realised that given my camera I couldn't exactly shoot things with the degree of precision that I wanted because all those old plastic Super-8 lenses weren't very exact and Kodachrome 40 is a 40 ASA reversal stock so lighting that at night with all the jerry-rigged work-lamps I was lighting the film with wasn't going well, so I eventually shot most of the night scenes on video. So here I am, stuck between two formats and suddenly realising that I couldn't exactly make a pure ‘Super-8 film’ so stylistically it began to push me more in the direction of thinking about a tonality and granularity as opposed to a pure format, and I guess this way of thinking also pushed toward my already-developing abstract concept of this mad scientist who had no lab, no patients and no monster, or did he? It suddenly began to be less about making a Jess Franco film and more of just surrendering to the grain. For me it wasn't about style over substance but more like style becoming substance because as it developed it became an integral part of the film's world.

“Cinechrome 70 (or Vistachrome 70, I've also used that name) was just an invented name on my part because I didn't feel right slapping the ‘Super-8’ moniker on the film because I'd already moved away from being a pure S8 film and I also got caught up in all those cool lab process names you might see in the title credits for European films. So in a way, ‘Cinechrome 70’ was my own dumb way of retro-homage and at the same time telling the audience that there was something different and unique going on with the visual style.”

Why is the main character named Karlstein instead of Frankenstein?
“One of the things that I definitely wanted to do with this film was mess with the preconceived notions of the audience, because as I said earlier I wanted to kind of switch horses halfway through and totally get the audience confused to a point where they would just let in all this weird pathos and imagery in the second half and it might hopefully affect them on some strange level. Using ‘Frankenstein’ in the title was definitely part of that set-up and it was directly inspired by Sam Sherman's US retitling of Paul Naschy's Mark of the Wolfman as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror. FBT isn't about Frankenstein so I thought I would make a movie which didn't really have anything to do with Frankenstein as a weird kind of homage to that title. Actually I originally came up with something like Frankenstein's Blood Orgy or ...Bloody Orgy but ultimately I think using the term ‘nightmare’ played perfect given the film's dreamlike concept.

“Also I thought that the Frankenstein family was always changing their name so it made sense for me to switch it to something else. I think I considered writing some dialogue for Victor at some point where he explains this but it just didn't feel right and I think those moments of clarity eventually fell by the wayside and were replaced by far more symbolic elements like the moments with the telephone and the little baby floating in the weird blue world, stuff like that, because I thought stuff like that was a little more universal than this little bratty kid who's coasting off his family name. I think for every strange scene I could've put in three or four scenes to explain what was happening with this one character but then it would be a totally different film because in a way you're not supposed to be sure exactly what's happening because Victor's not even really sure where his sick mind is going so you're almost violating something if you stretch out beyond the character for too long to observe what's happening outside.

“The name ‘Karlstein’ is from Lina Romay's character in Female Vampire but I also wanted to pay a vague homage to the Karnstein vampire family from Hammer because Peter Cushing's Frankenstein character was a big inspiration for me, especially the last Hammer Frankenstein film he made where he spends the entire film hiding under a false identity, screwing everything up with this weird ‘monster from hell’ and then at the end he just goes, ‘Oh well, I'll get it right tomorrow,’ and walks off into the sunset. That film really inspired me. Something inside tells me that any mad scientist movie needs to be kind of weird and anticlimactic in a sense in order to ring true.”

How well has the film been received (and indeed, understood) by those who have seen it?
“The reaction to my film has been very mixed on a very diverse level and it's hard for me to really contain all those reactions and regurgitate them because it's all been very surprising to me. In hindsight I wonder if I should really be surprised by it given that I've made a film with very few easy answers so why should I expect easy answers back from the audience?

“The thing with the title Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare is that it calls out to an audience like that old kindly book-keeper in Neverending Story and tells them in this gentle, grandfatherly voice: ‘This book is safe.’ Then they get into the screening room and they're hit with the film and suddenly they realise two minutes into it that: ‘Hey, this book isn't safe.’ Whether they enjoy the film or not I've played a game on them. If the film was sold to a different crowd with a more pretentious title I'm not sure if I'd get all these polarised reactions but who can tell really. The bottom line for me is that I think we should be playing in a much larger sandbox and ultimately the most important thing is to make something interesting or entertaining or something which uncomfortably falls inbetween those two.”

What plans do you have for your next project?
“I have a few films right now which I want to make but it's all up to how I can get them funded. I think before I do anything else I have to make another underground film in the style of this one, which is going to be painful because this film only cost $2,000 (actually closer to $1,500) and it bankrupted me, but I can deal with it.”

Finally, what's the deal with the missing apostrophe?
“The film's title originally had the apostrophe included, but when I was laying out the title graphics in this nice Eurostile font it just didn't look right with this thing hanging between the ‘N' and ‘S’ so I took it out and it looked better. Also I started thinking about it and the possessive nature of ‘Frankenstein's’ really bothered me because often I think it's used in film titles to suggest some authorship but it's authorship in a rather vague manner because the movie is so switched around from the original source material and the audience has no idea what that apostrophe really means. Sometimes you've got Bram Stoker's Dracula and then you've got John Carpenter's Vampires but wait a second, shouldn't it be John Steakley's Vampires (or Vampire$) because it's based on Steakley's source material? This whole concept of authorship and film titles is often more about name recognition than anything so I thought in a world where this could occur I would just take the apostrophe out and make it my own little stylistic thing like all those ‘S’s in Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song or the exclamation marks at the end of Russ Meyer films.”

interview originally posted 20th November 2006

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