Razor Reel - interview with Graeme Whifler
Some time ago, we from Razor Reel, where happy to receive a screener for DEADLY END, the much acclaimed horror movie of Mr. Graeme Whifler. The movie was so intense that the complete Razor Reel crew had to be hospitalized and was replaced by some dummies for some time. Today totally recovered (that means physically) from this movie we dared to ask writer/director Graeme Whifler some of his inner thoughts.
We asked him about world peace, spinach and his bank account but he came with answers to questions we never asked, nonsense from the other side but above all with refreshing information on his movie and other films.
Join us in the private nightmares of this man and prepare yourself for next month at Bifff.
And before you start reading, remember anyone who come with the words “Vase de noces” and tell us he wanted to make this film, deserves to king of the world.
RR: When working on the clips for Oingo Boingo or The Residents, can you feel the same satisfaction as working on a feature film?
GW: For a director, there can be nothing more rewarding or satisfying than making a feature film. Well, maybe becoming the President is better, or finding the cure for cancer, or having a child, or starting a fire, dropping a nuclear bomb, executing every slime bag on death row, slaughtering all the stupid drivers clogging up the freeways, finishing off an endangered species, mistreating slaves, having unprotected sex with a bloated unsuspecting…
No, making movies is the God Damned Best… as long as no asshole tries to rewrite it, re-cast it, re-shoot it, or re-cut the sucker. And if one IS lucky enough see their vision realized unmolested in a finished film, lord help them if it turns out to be an embarrassing stinker that earns nothing but ridicule, ostracism, and eventual suicide.
But all joking aside, I love telling stories. I love digging into the deepest darkest most rotten corners of my mind, extracting a festering, sick, venal, pleasure-inducing tumor of imagery, then clandestinely transplanting that putrid lump of entertaining sickness directly into the psyche of my victims, or should I say audience. I like making people feel things. I like making people laugh, cry, get sick, scared, or just uncomfortable in their own skin. I like giving my nightmares away for others to enjoy. I love to tell stories and I love to be in control.
Now as far which is more satisfying to make, movies or TV…
When a project is completed, my satisfaction directly relates to how deeply I move people. With movies a director has an audience captive for a couple of hours while their minds are hijacked and filled with a novel-style story made up with the finest ingredients of script, acting and music. I love to sit in the back of a darkened theater and feel the waves of emotion sweep over an audience as the movie works its dream like magic. TV is a bit different, satisfaction wise. It’s more like short story telling using a baseball bat for emphasis. Not only is it produced much quicker, the images, the acting, the story points are bigger, bolder, simpler. The audience is different. They are usually alone at home, stuck in front of the boob tube, drinking beer, eating, half-dressed, talking on the phone, talking to their dog, having sex with themselves, flipping through the channels… but still it’s possible to grab and twist their little minds. The other thing about TV is that it typically plays only once to a mass herd of people. I’ll never forget being high up in a jet flying across country at night, looking down at a sea of lights and realizing that way down there, each one of those hundreds of millions of lights was a home where somebody had a TV on, and one quarter of them were watching what dreams I had fashioned.
Making a movie should be against the law it’s so hard to do. Writing a movie can be fun, tremendously lonely, and cause minor pain from swelling of the brain. But shooting a movie is pure hell; it’s just like war except they get mad at you if you kill somebody. Should you prove victorious though, the rewards are heavenly with parades and film festivals honoring your work.
I forget, what was I talking about? What was the question? Something about satisfaction? Something about The Residents?
Working with, and for The Residents was a dream come true for me, a then a teething director. Even though they were essentially silent shorts, creating music videos under the Ralph Records label was unbelievably “satisfying”, to use your words. I had TOTAL freedom. Nobody supervised the naughty little films I made. The situation was ideal, I was The Residents paid “on-staff” director. I was given a studio to shoot in, an office which I built myself, a room filled with film editing equipment, construction tools, a lighting package, money to buy materials, film and processing, camera and grip rentals, pay for a few crew members, and nobody asked me what I was doing just as long as it looked like I was doing something. I could spend three months producing a five minute short. I’d hunt for a song from their roster that inspired me, then, I’d cook up a concept for the film and never once tell anybody at the record label what I was working on. They’d have to wait ‘til I finished to see even one frame. Of course I had to do most all the set construction and art department stuff, all the casting, all the costuming, most of the lighting, all of the cinematography, and all of the editing, and post production finishing, and promotion. It was like I had my own private filmmaking playpen to do whatever I wanted… as long as I also cleaned the office toilets, which was my other job there.
RR: DEADLY END is a movie where according to your own words, “ a picture of every body fluid a human can produce is in it”. This of course brings us to the vomiting scenes or the scene where Bob suffers from this extreme form of Diarrhea. How does a film board react on these very human but disturbing scenes?
GW: The good men and women who toil on film boards protecting us, the vulnerable, the weak, the easily damaged from images, sounds and ideas that are so very hurtful – they have a terrible job. They must actually watch entire UNCENSORED movies. Those poor souls are exposed to movie sex and violence day after day, year after year, and still have to go on living “normal” lives. And they do it for us. THEY watch the sex, the violence, the naughty things in films so we never have to. They make movies clean and safe. In a way, they eat vomit for us. My heart goes out to all the brave selfless censors around the world.
You ask me how the very “human” film board members will react when they watch DEADLY END? I hope they crap their pants.
RR Nick Searcy is absolutely great as Adrien Trumbull. When writing the script did you have a certain actor in mind for Adrien? And secondly, did Nick put in a lot of his own ideas in that character or was everything set out from the very start.
GW: I work hard writing a script so I expect the actors and actresses to just try and do what’s written in the script. The way I work with actors is, when they act bad, I roll up a newspaper and bat them in the head.
Seriously, Nick is amazing. Nick is also quite ill mentally. I knew that casting Adrien was pivotal to the movie since in a way Adrien is my hero. Nick says, “DEADLY END is the touching story of a man trying to police his neighborhood from an outbreak of perverted sex”.
What was the question?
Right, Nick Searcy. My producer, Jeff Kirshbaum, thought Nick might be perfect for the Adrien part so he introduced me to Nick at a bar one night. After several drinks I realized Nick and I shared a “special” sense of humor. The parts that tickled him most in the script were the parts other people found vile, disgusting, and depraved. After chatting and laughing with him for only a few minutes it seemed like he was a good old friend that I’d known for years. Everything just clicked and I knew Nick would be perfect and my movie would turn out splendidly.
Now as to how Nick brought the character Adrien Trumbull to life so brilliantly, that’s magic, and only the great actors have it. It didn’t hurt that Nick is real smart, or that physically he has a look that is so comforting, so reassuring that if some little part on the inside starts to sour and fester, he’s terrifying. Also before shooting we had several days of rehearsal where the lead actors and I could grow the characters. Perhaps this is a trade secret that I shouldn’t reveal but as we finished the second day of rehearsals, Nick confided to me there was still something about Adrien that he didn’t understand and was eluding him. The next day Nick was jazzed because overnight he’d created the missing piece of the puzzle that animated Adrien and it went like this…. When Adrien was about twelve his mom caught him masturbating and punished him terribly thus creating his tortured sexual conflicts. Once Nick had devised this psychological back story, Adrien was born.
I just also want say that during shooting it was a blast working with Nick. At every new low point in Adrien’s demented but good-natured nastiness, Nick and I would burst out laughing at just how unhygienically both our minds could sink.
Incidentally, a few of my closest friends who have seen the film remarked how much the character of Adrien’s mannerisms, speech and attitude reminded them of me and wondered how the mirroring effect came to pass, but what do they know, my friends are all liars anyway.
RR: You can’t deny the fact that DEADLY END goes further then most (recent) horror movies. It’s the realism of the movie; the simple bare facts that this can happen to each of us that make it so frightening. However did you come at certain points during filming where you said, this goes too far? Did you cut some scenes where you thought this is too sick!
GW: Nothing is cut from the movie because sick is good. People love sick. As far as thinking I went too far when filming DEADLY END, you must be kidding, other than my nightmares, there is nothing I can imagine putting in a movie that goes too far. Ok, maybe when we were filming a couple of the women crew members got quite upset, and maybe some members of the cast wanted to quit and run away rather than film certain scenes, and a few times we had to hide what we were shooting for fear the police would arrest us, but other than that…
People do find the movie quite disturbing and say it’s unlike anything they’ve seen before, which I take as a giant compliment. Comparing it to current movies, the sex isn’t very graphic, not a lot of skin is seen, and there is just a little blood, perhaps a cupful in the entire film. However psychologically it burrows under the audience’s skin better than chiggers. The horror builds in baby steps that methodically undermine a person’s sense of right and wrong, their sense of well-being. One little secret as to why this movie can be so upsetting is that it violates certain fundamental taboos that are acquired around the age of two or three. Ordinary sources of primal comfort become threatening. There are no monsters, vampires, zombies or walking dead in the movie, just someone whose compulsions get out of his control. I’m a big fan of what I call the “bad brain” syndrome because it makes for such compelling drama.
DEADLY END is based on two true stories of “bad brain” syndrome gone really bad. In one story, which I caught on TV years ago, a young man had a job working on an ambulance crew as a paramedic. He’d always treat his coworkers to donuts. But after a while they learned to refuse his offerings because they always felt sick after eating them. What his coworkers didn’t know was this young man with “bad brain” syndrome would always sprinkle rat poison on the donuts before handing them out. Skip forward a few years, the young man has gone to medical school and is not a doctor, and he’s locked up in prison. Oddly enough, the last few patients he visited in the hospital all died mysteriously. The TV camera crew went to the doctor’s house to film, and inside his kitchen they found every cupboard stuffed with poisons, and a little index card box filled with recipes for things like salmonella, Listeria, castor beans, lead… Claiming he was innocent, the TV crew set up a monitor in his cell, showed him the footage of his kitchen and challenged him to explain. Which he did by way of insisting that he was a doctor, and every doctor had kitchens loaded with poisons because doctors have to know about such things if they are to help make people well.
The other fellow with “bad brain” syndrome had a terrible problem; he couldn’t stop thinking about sex. After doing much research he discovered sexual thoughts originate from a little gland located on one’s kidney. So he turned his living room into an operating room complete with a giant mirror suspended over the table he was to use for the surgery. After everything was sterilized, he climbed on the table and opened himself up and was even able to cut through to one of his kidneys until he hit a little snag. That bad dirty little gland that was making think about sex all the time was attached to the bottom of his kidney so he needed to reach in and turn his kidney over to get at it. But he couldn’t because the pain was so intense when he tried turning his kidney, he almost passed out. Scared, he sewed himself back up and went to a hospital emergency room. There the doctors were quite impressed by the surgical skill displayed at the hands of an amateur. The kicker was that nobody at the hospital was surprised to see the self-mutilator because he’d been in three months earlier after he’d castrated himself.
RR: In the press book you told us that the movie was shot entirely on location does this mean no studio work or sets at all?
GW: No studio, no sets, everything was shot on location around Victorville, California, a weird, end-of-the-world high desert town halfway between Las Vegas and Hollywood. It’s a place scorched by blistering desert heat where things die easier than grow. It’s a place to hide, to hole up alone and go mad privately, quietly. Some of the homes dotting the desert have normal families, some have deviants, and some are secret drug factories cooking the Methedrine that turn others into hollow ghosts, the trembling burnt-out homeless wandering the wind swept roads at night. Roy Rodgers, the dead B-movie cowboy, had his Museum in Victorville. A few bucks bought admission to see Trigger, his beloved horse now stuffed, Buttermilk, his dead wife’s stuffed horse, and Bullet their dead, stuffed dog. And if that weren’t enough, Victorville also has lots of picturesque pawnshops selling guns, a federal prison, a hospital, and an abandoned air force base with its very own ghost town subdivision of deserted houses.
And right next door to Victorville is the really sad little desert berg of Adelanto, where we shot our exterior neighborhood scenes for DEADLY END. My brother discovered the location by luck through an on-line blind date. He drove two hours into the middle of the desert to hook-up with some woman who lived in Adelanto. He didn’t score with her but he sure stumbled onto one cool location. Dan Whifler, my brother, just happens to be one killer Production Designer who designed DEADLY END. Working with my brother is the best, creatively we’re joined at the hip, - our dad was an incredibly gifted architect who taught us well – communication is so easy and natural we hardly even need to speak, but what I really like about working with my brother is I don’t have to pay him, he’s afraid I’ll get mad if he asks for money.
Anyway Adelanto, Adrien’s neighborhood… Forty years ago a developer built a small subdivision of small cheap tract houses out in the middle of the desert figuring the area would grow and a city would form. It never did. Instead the houses scorched under the desert sun, their paint peeled, the gardens and lawns turned to dust, and the place simply festered in a forgotten part of the desert. And even though the cracker box houses have two tiny bedrooms, a small kitchen and living room, families spend most their time relaxing in their attached garages. They prop the door permanently open, move the cars out, add several chairs, a small table and a TV, and there they gather all day long, visible from the street as if in a giant fish bowl. A week after we finished filming, somebody angry over a bad drug deal, walked into one of those open garages and shot each member of a family of ten, killing eight.
But for us, making a movie in Victorville was like working in heaven. The people were super friendly and everyone actually WANTED a movie shot in their home, or business, or street. It was small town, so it was easy and quick to get around. And it was quiet, which was golden for our sound.
We shot everything on Super 16mm in eighteen days; no pickups, no reshoots. I never watched dailies. Why bother? I knew everything we exposed on film was going to look wonderful and cut together perfectly because we were so incredibility talented and modest. Now I must say that the biggest part of that “WE”, the guy who is most responsible for the film looking like a 100 million dollar production is Bernd Heinl, our Director of Photography. Bernd, an old-school pro, had shot killer “Indie” movies like, Out of Rosenheim (aka Bagdad Café), and Rosalie Goes Shopping. Bernd is a true Filmmaker - not some film-school video sissy - who not only knows the motion picture camera and lighting, he also knows editing and most importantly, STORY. Our collaboration was so close, so effortless, that on our set communication was limited to winks, hand gestures, grunts and dirty jokes. We didn’t even need storyboards or shot lists because we had designed the film using our psychic powers. Of course the fact that Bernd is a big fan of movies about diarrhea was a big plus.
I forget, didn’t you ask about filming on sets or location?
Well, for poor Bernd, our locations were absolute hell to shoot. Not only was it 42 degrees Celsius at night, his crew tiny (midgets), the Panavision studio camera, old and constantly breaking down, but some of the rooms we shot in were so small he had to set up his camera out in a hall and film the actors in a room through a reflection in a hidden mirror. What was more hellish for Bernd, many of the scenes in DEADLY END called for hand-held camera. Unfortunately, the old studio camera that Panavision supplied us for free weighed over 175 pounds, so several times Bernd was actually crushed under the camera causing him total paralysis a few times, and on two occasions he slipped into a coma, his heart stopped, and if it weren’t for a 1st AD manning defibrillator paddles and a Leatherman wielding Grip cutting him a tracheotomy, we would have lost Bernd for good. I exaggerate a little perhaps.
Bernd Heinl Deutsch ist und so were a bunch of others on the crew, Germans, and for some reason this scheiße themed movie seemed to compliment their bawdy temperaments quit well. We also had a Frenchwoman, a Dutchwoman, an Englishman, a Lithuanian, a Russian, a Korean, and a Mexican involved, so the movie production really had an international feel. Which was splendid, because even though we were on location shooting in the dark underbelly of a hidden, crystal-meth crazed America, DEADLY END really does have an air of European sophistication.
RR: Do you intent to stay in the genre or are you also interested in making drama’s or comedies? And are you already preparing a new project?
GW: First, I want to make one point violently clear. DEADLY END is NOT a horror movie, it’s a comedy. And it’s not a black comedy, it’s a BROWN comedy. Now some people have said DEADLY END is the most disgusting film they’ve ever seen or that it makes David Lynch look like Mary Poppins. Also I must admit that during test screenings a few gutless weaklings lost consciousness and passed out, or developed full body blistering hives, or suffered psychological breakdowns but the hell with them, they deserved what they got, survival of the fittest. Yes, there is some painful meat damage shown in this movie that will make some want to puke, but I still think children will love it.
When people ask, “Graeme, what kind of films do you like?” I stare at them with hateful vacant eyes and respond in a dead threatening tone, “I like movies where people get hurt”.
Of course movies where people get hurt includes all good tragedies, dramas, thrillers, comedies, and yes even those of the horror genre. You ask what my new project is? If I tell the bastards will kill me.
RR: I know that a remake is seldom as good as the original but is there any foreign movie (Asian, European,…) that you would like to set your teeth in and work on a remake.
GW: Sonny Boy, I want to remake Sonny Boy and do it right this time. I wrote the script intending to direct it myself but it slipped from out of my hands only to be raped, butchered and raped again. What finally made it to the screen was quite pitiful, a hopeless cripple of a movie, only ten percent of what the original script demanded. What shocks me is that even this diluted, lame, ultra low-quality, shadow of its true potential movie, has a cult following. I hear people have Sonny Boy screening events, and that there is even a band named Sonny Boy. A remake of Sonny Boy would be fantastic.
But you asked about remaking a foreign movie and I really can’t think of one. If I truly love a movie, the last thing I’d want to do is remake it. Remakes always suck. If I disliked a movie I wouldn’t want to remake it either. Why bother? I’d rather come up with something new.
Well, maybe there is one type of foreign film I might consider remaking. I am a total Hindi (Indian) film fanatic and try to watch at least one of these films a week. Perhaps I could do a crime, comedy, tragedy, drama involving a band of dacoits, a love story, a family saga, revenge, and at least eight spectacular songs featuring hundreds of dancers. Of course there could be no sex, lip kissing, no graphic violence or horror because nothing gets past a good Indian censor. At the sake of sounding inconsistent, I’m convinced the strict code of censorship actually makes Hindi films better. And since somebody brought up the subject of Bollywood films, I’d like state right here, right now, that there is one, and only one actor I’d personally cut that sneaky little gland off my kidney myself if offered a chance to work with him. He’s the world’s greatest, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan.
RR: With the acceptance to the Bifff festival, your movie will hopefully start a European tour. Are you coming over to promote your film & how do you feel about the (European) Festivals in general and the Brussels Festival particularly.
GW: Yes, I am coming to Brussels.
You ask how I feel about it. I feel like it’s yet another dream come true. It’s wonderful enough just to be able to write and direct anything let alone a movie. But then to have audiences a world away enjoy one’s work, what could be better? I’m really at a loss of words to describe how grateful and lucky I feel. Having never been to a European Film Festival, let alone have my movie play at one, I have no idea what to expect, but I’m betting it will be great.
It’s curious. For years and years my closest friends have told me that Europe is where my work should play because Europe is where the audiences will understand and appreciate it. I guess I’m about to find out if my friends were right.
RR: Thank you for your time and to close this interview I would like to ask one more question, something we often ask. What (kind of) movies would you advise our readers to set their teeth in? A personal Top five list maybe?
GW: ONLY FIVE! That’s hard, fifty is easier. Well, as I’ve already said, you can’t go wrong with a Hindi movie. Raj Kapoor was a director worth checking out. As far as directors, Fellini, Peckinpah, Konchalovsky, Hitchcock, Cassavetes, Eastwood, Wiseman, this is so hard, there are so many great directors. How about a few of my favorite moves? A few more than five?
Titticut Follies, The Tenant, Repulsion, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, Satyricon, Happiness, Pink Flamingos, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, Taxi Driver, Psycho, Passion Of The Christ, Barfly, The Dead, The Pianist, A Woman Under the Influence, Maria's Lovers, Runaway Train, The Inner Circle, Bird, Million Dollar Baby, Sunshine, The Fast Runner, Downfall, The Machinist, A Place in the Sun, Dark Victory, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mera Naam Joker, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Love Streams, Blue Velvet… This is impossible; it’s like asking to name your three favorite teeth.
Ok, I have one BELGIUM gem to leave as a parting shot. It may be the most intense movie I have ever seen, and turned me green with jealousy that I hadn’t made it.
My number one movie is… Vase de noces, or The Wedding Trough, by Thierry Zéno.