Monday, April 27, 2015

Interview with FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM director Jeff Burr!!!

I first became aware of Jeff Burr the same way many fans did, noticing his name pop up time and again as the unofficial “king of horror sequels.” Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Stepfather II. Puppetmaster 4. Puppetmaster 5. Pumpkinhead II. But if you cast your gaze (and IMDb browser) back to the beginning, you will arrive at a curious little item known as From a Whisper to a Scream aka The Offspring (1987), which represents Burr’s first official feature, co-written with C. Courtney Joyner (Prison, Class of 1999) and producer Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood, Menace II Society). It’s a charmingly twisted anthology piece about a charmingly twisted Tennessee burg – with a wraparound featuring Susan Tyrrell and the Crown Prince of Horror Himself, Vincent Price – making its Blu-ray debut this week courtesy of Shout! Factory.

The film is an entertaining enough slice of cheese in its own right, with four macabre tales centered around Oldfield, the accursed town in question. In addition to Price and Tyrrell, the first-time filmmakers managed to land a stellar cast to populate the quartet of stories, including Cameron Mitchell, Clu Gulager, Angelo Rossitto, Lawrence Tierney, Martine Beswick, Harry Caesar, Rosalind Cash, and Terry Kiser, with impressively bloody practical effects by Rob Burman.

But the real prizes lie in the supplements that Shout! Factory and Ballyhoo Productions have brought to the party, which include two new commentary tracks, a two-hour making-of documentary, Return to Oldfield, another feature-length documentary about Burr and his pals making Super-8 movies as kids (A Decade Under the Innocence), and a wealth of rare on-set photos and stills. It’s a veritable treasure trove for any fans of the film, and may make fans of those who weren’t already.

Burr, who I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago at a HorrorHound Weekend in Indianapolis (which he was attending just as a FAN, since he was shooting a TV-film nearby), was kind enough to spare an hour to chat via phone from his home in Dalton, Georgia, where From a Whisper to a Scream was shot three decades ago. What follows is but a fraction of our conversation, as we indulged in many a sidebar, diversion, and tangent along the way. Incredibly intelligent, versed in all manner of cinema, and a heck of a nice guy, here is someone who deserves to be better known by the current generation of genre aficionados and who horror convention promoters would do well to book early and often. Boils and ghouls, I give you . . . Jeff Burr.

Aaron Christensen: How is it looking back 30 years later and seeing From a Whisper to a Scream, your first feature film, receiving the Blu-ray treatment?

Jeff Burr: It’s mind-blowing. Hard to believe it was 30 years ago we shot the movie, although it’s easy to believe when I look in the mirror! That film is so wrapped up in my life, my career, just everything. It’s always going to be the film that is closest to my heart on some level. It was such an amazing experience to make and I’m incredibly grateful that Scream Factory is putting it out and that we got to do the really comprehensive extras that we wanted to do. You pick up this disc and you’ll know pretty much all there is to know about Jeff Burr’s creative life up until that point.

AC: It really was gratifying to see a two-hour making-of doc for a relatively . . . I don’t want to say “obscure” anthology flick, but . . .

JB: No, no, say obscure! It’s true, it’s true!

AC: Well, I had heard about it years ago, and eventually picked up an old VHS copy of it from some video store (which I still have). It’s really wonderful that these older films can now be re-examined and/or discovered by a new generation of genre fans, as well as all of the context and hindsight via these terrific supplements.

JB: Exactly right. The context is what the documentaries and the commentaries provide for a 21st century viewer, showing what the world of independent filmmaking was like at that point in time and what we went through to pull it off. I want to mention a specific word of thanks to Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Productions – he’s the one that really shepherded this along. We had great cooperation from Scream Factory, specifically Jeff Nelson and Cliff MacMillian, but in terms of the heavy lifting, Daniel did all of that. I wanted to work with someone on it because it was so close to me, such a personal thing, I wanted to be able to have a little perspective, since I basically have none! Even looking back 30 years, it’s like I made it yesterday. I’m a little myopic in that regard, so it was great to have Daniel there. Plus, and this is not to be underestimated, but he made it entertaining – to me, the documentary is as entertaining if not more so than the movie itself!

AC: They really do make for great companion pieces. After watching the doc, I wanted to immediately go back and watch the movie again.

JB: I think the problem with a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff is that you’re at the mercy of what is available in terms of archival materials or how honest and open the participants choose to be. We were fortunate in that not only was I willing to be open, but everyone who worked on it was equally so. The legal department at MGM was very good to us as well. There were some things that they said we couldn’t do, such as showing images that weren’t directly related to From a Whisper to a Scream if we were talking about a specific actor. For Terry Kiser, for instance, we couldn’t show the poster for Weekend at Bernie’s. But anything I had collected over the years, scrapbook stuff, all that was fair game. I think that’s what makes the documentary unique because I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t throw anything out. I may not organize it, but it’s in some bag somewhere. (laughs) So I had so much stuff from that movie and also because it was shot in my hometown and my company produced it,  we were privy to more material than my other movies.

AC: Well, I can see how you would hang onto a lot of that stuff anyway, purely for sentimental reasons.

JB: Except the stuff that I ended up saving wasn’t sentimental, it was more just nuts and bolts stuff. It wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s a cool prop,” it was more just the real making-of stuff. But it’s just so gratifying to me for so many reasons that now anyone who’s interested can buy/rent this Blu-ray and know what really went into making the movie, and who those people were.

AC: That is something that the young filmmakers of today have the benefit of; these supplements are kind of like their home version of film school.

JB: I absolutely agree. I would have killed for this kind of background information or making-of materials for a film that I loved, say, back in the 1970s. It’s another reason why Daniel and I really wanted to make this so complete and comprehensive for the fans of this movie, whoever they may be or how many ever of them there may be. We wanted to be able to give them a cinematic orgasm – any fan of this movie will be in heaven.

AC: I also think that it raises the bar for future releases of under-the-radar gems. How great would it be to see every low-budget horror film being given the gold-star treatment? Fans have been dying for these kinds of comprehensive looks at these films that they thought, “Oh, I’m the only one who likes this or even knows about it.” Even if a film never reaches “legendary” status, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to someone.

JB: That’s a good point. I used to have a phrase – I don’t know if it’s true now, since there are so many movies out there – but I used to say, “Every movie is somebody’s favorite movie.” Even nowadays, I think it’s more true than not. It’s about honoring those fans and, equally so, honoring those who worked on the films who are no longer here.

AC: Who came up with the idea for the big bottle-cap magnifying eyeglass lenses for Clu's character in his segment?

JB: Clu and I had discussed it in L.A., but he was the one who found the pair of glasses that you see in the film. He found them at a prop house, I think. He arrived in Dalton, I start talking to him, he asks me to turn around, and then turn back when he says "ok." I do, I hear him say "ok," and I turn back around to see Clu in the glasses, looking at me and saying, "Grace, I love you." That is the moment that Stanley Burnside was born, and Clu ran with it until we wrapped!

AC: For Whisper to a Scream, you were essentially making five different films; same crew, different casts.

JB: Every episode, for me and the crew, felt like we were making a new movie, and then when that movie was over, a whole bunch of new actors came into town and we changed locations. It wasn’t like where you’re shooting on the same soundstage for 20 days; every week was a different thing, which energized people but at the same time it was a long slog. It was shoving 20 pounds of movie into a 10 pound bag. My cinematic eyes are always bigger than my stomach. It was a real mix of honest-to-God, “We really want to make this movie,” and the reality of “Well, we need to make it under these specific conditions.”

AC: Well, you did come out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, right?

JB: (laughs) That is kind of true, but really, I was working for Jim Wynorski who was working for Roger back in 1982 and ’83 in the advertising department. A couple years later, when it was clear we were going to get Vincent, I called up Roger and had a meeting with him, just wanting to know, “Tell me about directing Vincent Price, anything I should know, anything you know that nobody else does that will help me direct him,” etc. Roger was incredibly gracious, and basically said Vincent was an amazing guy, and you’ll love him.

He even came down when we were shooting – completely coincidentally, we were shooting in his studio in Venice, California – and stopped by to see Vincent and they had a great reunion. That’s a huge regret I have: That I didn’t just jump in the middle and get a picture with the two of them! However, I did get to see the moment where Roger walked onto the stage and saw Vincent – he just lit up, went over, and gave him a big handshake and a hug. That was great to witness, just this incredible respect between the two of them.

AC: I won’t steal any of the documentary’s fire by asking you to tell it here, but, wow, the story of you landing Vincent Price for the movie is pretty great.

JB: I couldn’t even begin to tell it without telling the whole thing! (laughs) And it’s a long story! But I will say this to any aspiring filmmaker: Aim high. Set that bar high in terms of who you REALLY want to cast and do everything you can to get them, exhaust every possibility and resource. Sometimes that means working in non-traditional ways, going around corners, running the risk of pissing people off, but sometimes that tenacity pays off as it did with us. My brother was incredibly tenacious in trying to get the money for this movie and he really was the linchpin behind how we got it made. Vincent being in the movie was a combination of a little luck, a little fate, and a lot of tenacity, being unwilling to accept no for an answer.

AC: I want people to pick up the disc if only to hear that story. It’s entertaining and inspiring as well. There’s also the flip side, which is the story of the distributor changing the title to The Offspring and not really marketing the fact that you had, oh, actually gotten Vincent Price.

JB: It’s probably not the only reason, but it’s certainly one of the reasons it’s become a relatively obscure movie. All the publicity we had was always under the original From a Whisper to a Scream title, and then the distributor changed the title and sent it around the country to varying degrees of success. It got a fairly decent video release, but after the initial video release, it disappeared for many years because it really didn’t play on television; in fact, I don’t think it played on regular, non-cable television until very recently with the HD sub-channels like Dish TV and Me-TV.

AC: Late-night TV was where horror fans of a certain age discovered a lot of great stuff.

JB: Right. It never got a chance to build up a following in that respect, and that always frustrated me because, like the movie or not, it shouldn’t ever have been obscure with that cast! That always floored me. Even scholarly publications . . . I remember reading in Film Comment, this was probably 1990, where there was an article on Vincent and the last footnote of the article was, “There were rumors he did a film called From a Whisper to a Scream, but we can’t substantiate them!” Again, it’s been a very obscure movie for 25 years, which is why this new Blu-ray release is so exciting on several levels. It’s almost like it’s being released for the first time, and with these special features, it’s exactly what I wanted it to be.

AC: The fact that each separate segment is given its time in the spotlight is fantastic. It’s as though each of the segments is getting its own documentary, even more so than some full-length features are given for their releases.

JB: It really was the only way to do it. Each shoot had its own personality, and that’s why I have fond memories of each one.

AC: Stepfather II was the next project you did afterwards. Were there other projects on the burner as well?

JB: I was hired to do a few things that didn’t get made, and up for things I didn’t get, and I was writing scripts, etc. I got hired to do a movie for Empire Pictures called The Vault, which was going to be shot in Italy, but it was right at the end of Empire’s heyday, so that kind of collapsed. It was a combination of Charlie [Band]’s mismanagement of funds and the Italian lira vs. the dollar and the exchange rate and the banks pulling the funding. I was there for probably four months, but it was wrong place, wrong time.

So, yes, to answer your question, Stepfather II ended up being the next project and that was a direct result of From a Whisper to a Scream. We had showed it around to several distributors and one of the people we screened it for foreign distribution was ITC, and their rep, Lawrence Garrett, thought that while it wasn’t right for ITC to pick up, it stuck in his head that we had made this ambitious movie for very little money. Nine months go by and ITC, much like Dimension was for Miramax, decided they wanted to create a division for genre movies, and they would start with sequels to genre films that they owned. The first two in line were Stepfather II and Zapped Again!.

AC: Ah, yes, the classic Zapped! with Scott Baio and Willy Aames.

JB: Right. So Lawrence Garrett remembers us and I get a call out of the blue and he asked if my brother and Darin and I, as a team, would be interested in doing a sequel to The Stepfather. And, after all the interview process, etc. we got the job. The funny thing is that Stepfather II was made for video, but then Miramax bought it and it got a theatrical release – a better theatrical release than The Offspring – and the irony was that Stepfather II and The Offspring played as a double bill in Atlanta at the drive-in!

AC: The first Jeff Burr film festival! You touched on your relationship with Charles Band just a minute ago, but you also took the reins of the Puppetmaster series for parts 4 and 5, yes?

JB: Guilty as charged. (laughs)

AC: Well, as my friend Gert Verbeeck stated in his retrospective on the series for HorrorHound magazine, “These first five films perfectly epitomize Full Moon’s particular brand of movie magic from their 1989-1995 era heyday. The fifth installment was subtitled The Final Chapter, and that’s what it should have been.” I think that’s a compliment.

JB: I would tend to agree with that, not necessarily because of the job I did, but because Puppetmaster 4 and 5 were, I think, the last two films produced with Paramount’s financial backing. So, even though 4 and 5 were much cheaper than 2 or 3, or even the first one, there was still a level of production value.

AC: I wish we had time to discuss all of your films in greater detail. I applauded Scream Factory’s decision to give you nearly an hour to talk on their recent Pumpkinhead II release about your background and specifically about that film. Another big feather in their cap, as far as I’m concerned.

JB: That was a surprise to me! Some guys from Atlanta came over with questions that Aine Leicht wanted to ask, and I just started talking, like I do, figuring they would eventually trim it down to a 10 or 15-minute featurette or combine it with Greg Nicotero’s piece. But then they used the whole thing! I mean, I can yap about pretty much any film I’ve done. I’ve got a darn near photographic memory about films that I’ve made and the process of making them.

AC: As we were saying earlier, I think fans of these movies are eager to hear that kind of in-depth examination. And for folks who are fans of you, and I count myself among them, it’s a great insight into your creative process. Looking at Pumpkinhead II, it will unfortunately live forever in the shadow of Stan Winston’s original, but taken on its own merits, it’s a really fun monster-on-the-loose, guy-in-a-suit creature feature! I hadn’t seen it before Scream Factory put it out and I was pleasantly surprised.

JB: Exactly. I think if you didn’t know anything about the first movie (and it certainly doesn’t depend on the first movie story-wise), it’s fun. But if you love the original, then I can see why you might dislike the sequel.

AC: Which is a little unfair, since it didn’t even start out as a Pumpkinhead movie, as you explain in the commentary.

JB: Right, that all happened after the fact. There was another movie that the company was developing, and then it was just a sales thing. The head of the company went to a distributor and said, “Hey, what would you say if I could give you Pumpkinhead II, how much money would you give me for it,” and they came up with a figure which in turn dictated how much we could spend on the movie, and how quickly we had to deliver it (which was very quickly).

AC: On the other end of the commercial spectrum, can you tell us a little bit about Straight into Darkness (2004), which is a film that horror fans should definitely make the effort to track down.

JB: Thanks! There’s not a Blu-ray for it yet, but you can find it on DVD on Amazon. I don’t know if it’s streaming on Netflix or anywhere else, but yes, it’s a personal movie and a very strange and dreamlike World War II story. It played a lot of festivals and got some really good reviews, but it was just one of those things where it didn’t have the exposure or star power. Plus it’s a tough, polarizing movie, people like it or they don’t. It was never destined to be a mainstream hit or anything, but no false humility, I do think it’s worth seeking out, especially if you’re a fan of David Warner or war movies or strange mood pieces. Plus, a lot of people who worked on From a Whisper to a Scream worked on that one as well.

AC: Perfect. Well, that kind of takes us back full circle. Here’s hoping people enjoy the new Blu-ray, and thanks again for your time, Jeff!

JB: It really warms my heart that people are still interested in our little movie, and I hope everyone enjoys seeing this particular edition. Thanks for your support!


From a Whisper to a Scream is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.


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