Thursday, May 14, 2009

PLAGUE TOWNThe Evening Class Interview With David Gregory

Bruce Fletcher introduced me to David Gregory's feature directorial debut Plague Town when it had its world premiere at Dead Channels 2008 and encouraged me to interview Gregory, which I accomplished during the festival. I now offer up that transcript in conjunction with Plague Town's May 12, 2009 DVD/Blu-Ray release from Dark Sky Films.

David Gregory is one of the international DVD industry's most in-demand Bonus Features providers. He has produced and directed more than 130 "making of" documentaries on films as diverse as Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Wicker Man, The Deer Hunter, Faster Pussycat, Don't Look Now, Heathers and Repulsion. As co-founder of the UK/US DVD labels Blue Underground and Severin, he has produced many of the industry's most widely acclaimed discs and collections, including The Final Countdown, The Alan Clarke Collection and The Mondo Cane Collection, which includes his feature-length documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. Gregory also produced the award-winning 2004 feature film The Manson Family and wrote, produced and directed the IFC original production The Spaghetti West.

Regarding Plague Town, Gregory has stated: "When we originally wrote Plague Town, killer children hadn't been used nearly enough in modern horror cinema. We wanted to make something that had the edge of a twisted fairy tale, filled with imagery of threatening woods, enchanted cottages, sinister old ladies and eerie foreboding, but with some truly unique and beautiful violence. And we chose to up the ante by making the children hideously deformed and mercilessly homicidal."

Plague Town is a scary, gory, freaky old-school horror movie about a family that gets lost in Ireland's rural countryside. In his preview for
Fangoria, Michael Gingold stated: "Even as it has become a cliché of the new horror wave for filmmakers to say that their projects aim for the spirit of '70s chillers, movies that genuinely evoke that veneer are few and far between. There's a certain vibe about the decade's drive-in fare that's hard to define and harder to capture... One new production that gets it, and gets it right, is Plague Town." Fangoria has gone on to champion Gregory's film with a follow-up profile of the girls of Plague Town and Chris Alexander's interview with Gregory. My own interview with Gregory took place over pozole at Mi Lindo Yucatan. This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!

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Michael Guillén: Congratulations on the world premiere of your first narrative feature Plague Town, which—as I understand it—is also the first in-house production for Dark Sky?

David Gregory: Thank you. That's right.

Guillén: I was quite frankly stunned when I was researching your IMdb profile to discover that—within an eight-year period—you've made close to 100 "making of" documentaries! Before we get into Plague Town, can you speak to that "making of" documentary process? How did you get started with that?

Gregory: The "making of" documentary for Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre was my first, which I wasn't hired to do; I made it because I met Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface. He happened to still be in touch with a lot of the people who worked on the film, many of who had fallen out of the industry. Other than Tobe Hooper, most of them were obscure personalities. I had already done a couple of local-interest documentaries in Nottingham (where I was born and raised) about Nottingham during the War and old movie theatres in Nottingham, that sort of thing. I made the "making of" documentary on Texas Chainsaw Massacre and—because it was feature length—it came out as a release on its own. That attracted other people, particularly Bill Lustig, the director of Maniac and Maniac Cop. He was also the DVD producer for Anchor Bay at that point. This was before Blue Underground. Lustig asked me to do a "making of" documentary on The Wicker Man, which they had just acquired for Anchor Bay. I went out to L.A. to edit it. They were really happy with it. They said, "We have this roster of films coming up. Which ones do you think it's worth making a making of?" I started diving into them and doing several of them at the same time because you're working around other people's schedules. Nobody gets paid to do interviews for these things.

Guillén: To be clear, your "making of" documentaries are retrospective? Archival? Not so much a making of during the shooting of the film?

Gregory: Absolutely. I don't think I've ever done a contemporary one; they've always been retrospective. So it's a matter of tracking people down and finding out if they want to talk about that film.

Guillén: So how did a young boy from Nottingham get into American grindhouse genre?

Gregory: Interestingly—because we have stricter censorship in England—I wasn't able to have the grindhouse experience that everyone had in America. In England, you had to be over 18 to go see any kind of horror movie in a theatre. What was fortunate for me was that this was during the dawn of video. I was eight or nine years old and my family was one of the first to own a Betamax video, which allowed us to go to the video store. I already had books on horror that covered the Universal films, the Hammer films, films like that, but there was nothing on Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci or "Jess" Franco. So when I went to the video store and saw these garish, lurid titles—Bloody Moon or Thriller Killer—with equally lurid cover artwork, I had never heard of these films but I wanted to see them.

Guillén: Interesting. So you are of the generation that gained cinema literacy through video? In contrast to my experience as a child of actually seeing the Hammer films in the moviehouse?

Gregory: I watched them on TV and I loved them. I loved all the Universal ones as well. It wasn't just sleazy movies that I was into. I was into all kinds of horror movies, even black and white and back to the silents. Whenever a horror movie was on TV, I would make a point to watch it.

Guillén: So how many "making of" documentaries have you actually done? 90? 100?

Gregory: It's probably more than that. More like 140; 150, maybe?

Guillén: Why all of a sudden the need to write and direct your own feature?

Gregory: It wasn't "all of a sudden" at all. It was an opportunity I had been waiting for. I went to film school in Boston, where I made a 45-minute thesis film called Scathed. It featured Holly Woodlawn, was sort of horrorish, more like an Almadovar film. Then I wrote two feature scripts within the next year. I just assumed I'd be jumping into features because I'd done this 45-minute film. I thought it would be that easy. Of course, it's not that easy. I ended up having to move back to England when my visa expired and there was certainly no opportunity there to get financing for the kinds of films I wanted to make. I worked for a video production company and that was how I got into making documentaries.

Guillén: Was that Severin Films?

Gregory: No. It was a company named Viewpoint Television.

Guillén: When did you become involved with Severin Films?

Gregory: Severin happened after Blue Underground. I started Blue Underground in London with my friend Carl.

Guillén: Does Blue Underground specialize in adult genre fare?

Gregory: No. We formed it to distribute horror movies in England. We had many run-ins with the censors. It was not a fun experience really.

Guillén: Were you triumphant in those run-ins with the censors?

Gregory: No. But we took it as far as we could. We took them to court over Last House on the Left because they wanted to cut it. We had this big trial. Unfortunately, it's not a real court; it's basically a court of people appointed by the censorship board. So it was basically a bunch of censors listening to our arguments and then saying, "No." At that time it was a fight that was lost. It's gotten better since. Anyway, I moved to the U.S. after I started working with Bill. He formed Blue Undergound-U.S. He liked the name. When he broke off from Anchor Bay and started his own label, he named it Blue Underground.

Guillén: So Blue Underground was originally your production umbrella for the "making of" documentaries you were filming?

Gregory: Exactly. But the reason Blue Underground is a known name is because of what Bill did with the DVD label restoring all these weird and wonderful films from around the world. I worked with him for six years, including the first few years of Blue Underground, and then I broke off and started Severin Films with
John Cregan, an editor who I was also working with at Blue Underground and who was also the co-writer and co-editor of Plague Town. We started Severin Films to do a similar sort of thing as Blue Underground. We started with Euro-erotic titles simply because there were a lot of them and there were a lot of other labels doing horror movies. Most of the horror movies were pretty much taken by that point; but, there were still quite a few films like Black Emmanuelle that were equally fascinating exploitation movies. Now we've branched out into war movies and horror movies.

Guillén: And you call yourselves the Severin Brothers?

Gregory: [Chuckling.] Yes, it's basically John Severin, David Severin and Carl Severin.

Guillén: And what's the meaning behind Severin?

Gregory: Blue Underground was named after Blue Velvet and The Velvet Underground, with the "velvet" taken out. Being a big fan of The Velvet Underground, the song "Venus In Furs" features lyrics which mention Severin, the main character in the book
Venus in Furs.

Guillén: You've created a library of cult films and exploitation titles. Is it difficult to acquire them? Do you have an audience for them?

Gregory: We do have a very dedicated audience for them. I wouldn't say it's a huge audience, but it's enough of an audience for it to be worthwhile. It's not difficult to acquire them once you've found who owns them; but, often that's the real legwork: figuring out who still owns these obscure movies.

Guillén: Do you offset their limited appeal through limited printings?

Gregory: We can only spend so much on restoring and transferring the films. We'll print as many as there's demand for. It doesn't cost that much to print an individual DVD; the cost is in licensing the movie, transferring it from the negative, and then restoring it, which we have to do on all of those because the audience expects better quality on these kinds of movies than the average MGM or Warner movie.

Guillén: Blue Underground gained their reputation—didn't they?—precisely for working with original elements in their restorations?

Gregory: Yes, Bill was a pioneer in that. At some points he spent way more on the restoration than he would ever stand a chance of making back. But he refused to put something out that could get a review saying, "This was not restored" or "the sound's rubbish."

Guillén: Where did Dark Sky Films come in?

Gregory: Dark Sky came in because they own Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I contacted them about my documentaries and mentioned that—if they were going to be releasing another DVD in the future—I did "making of" documentaries. In 2001, I went out to Illinois where they're based and met
Greg Newman—who became one of the executive producers of Plague Town—and we got along quite well straightaway. We started talking about doing a documentary on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which was a production of MPI from the eighties that they owned. Then I started doing a lot of extras for them as well. I did Magic, the Richard Attenborough movie. I've just finished a feature-length documentary on Baraka. Over time, I've done a lot of special features for them.

Guillén: Now that you've done both, what differentiates making a "making of" feature from making a feature? What challenges did you face in that transition?

Gregory: The step wasn't huge. It's still basically a lot of coordination between people and getting what you want on screen in the time and budget that you have. The main difference, of course, is the fact that I'm actually working as the director working with actors to get a performance, as opposed to working with actors to get them to sit down to tell me a story about a film they've made. That was the one area where I was a little bit concerned that I might be green—since it had been a while since I'd done that—but, it turned out to be one of the more pleasurable sides of the experience. The key cast were all first-time or second-time actors because it was a non-SAG film. They didn't treat it like it was a rubbish horror film; they treated it as a proper movie and roles they could really get into. The rehearsal process and working with the actors was one of the great joys of the whole process.

Guillén: How influenced were you by the films you have created "making of" features for? As I was watching Plague Town, I detected traces of The Wicker Man. Early reviews of Plague Town have noted your familiarity with these earlier films.

Gregory: That's right. Interestingly, people are picking up on the fact that Plague Town is a throwback to American films from the seventies; but, just as much, it was influenced by European films I was seeing in the video age, particularly the Fulci and Argento films where they took great care to set up violent set pieces that were actually quite beautiful. For me, it wasn't about representing violence in an ugly way. It was about doing it in a cinematic way. Something I've always found exciting about Argento's work is how he talks about the beauty of blood spray. Of course, he's not talking about it as if somebody's actually in pain.

The fact that Plague Town features children, and that there's a lot of fairy tale imagery—the gingerbread house and enchanted woods—these are not necessarily associated with seventies American horror movies, which are more about dirt, rust, and intense suffering. I'm not saying that's bad; it's just a slightly different approach. Plague Town is more stylized.

Guillén: At your screening the other night you were differentiating between a desert milieu and a dark forest, which is a good handle on this film. When I was watching Plague Town again last night in preparation for our interview, I was struck this time by the scene where Jessica (Erica Rhodes) is tied to the tree and the children stuff her mouth full of leaves. That made me acutely aware of the forest floor and of the bodies being dragged through leaves, and the torturous usage of twigs.

Gregory: And how the forest is an environment for children to play in with so many different things they can use as toys or to create and build things, which is what they do, albeit in a bizarre way.

Guillén: So let's get into Plague Town. Do you have children? Where did this story come from?

Gregory: I don't have children, no. I don't dislike children in any way. I've had my babysitting years. I like my friends' children. I get along with them. But there is something unruly, obviously, about children, particularly a pack of children. I was in a friend's elementary school class room and the children were absolutely uncontrollable. There was something a little bit disquieting about that, knowing there was nothing you could do. Even if you started shouting, it would probably be funny to the kids. But back to the film's idea, it was originally written as a short film called Come Out and Play, which served as the middle section of the movie from where Robin (James Wake) gets shot through to his getting hanged in the tree. Children have basically been underused as a threat in horror movies. We have plenty of zombie movies and vampire movies but a group of marauding children has only been used maybe 10 times in the history of horror that I'm aware of. And they've always been used effectively in the films that I've seen: Children of the Damned, The Brood, Who Could Kill A Child?, among others. You're not supposed to kill children. You're not supposed to turn around and fight back against children. Children aren't supposed to be a lethal threat.

Guillén: One of the main elements that has long intrigued me about the films of Guillermo del Toro is his willingness to depict the hurting of children. When I first saw Mimic, I was shocked when the kids were killed.

Gregory: Because people don't do it, do they? It's like killing a dog.

Guillén: I suspect it's a peculiarly American liability in their nearly obscene glorification of the child.

Gregory: I once read an article by the English horror writer
Ramsey Campbell wherein he stated it was "cheating" to use the kid as an embodiment of evil. I can't remember his specific argument, but he had a definite contempt and dislike for any story where a kid was The Bad Seed or The Omen. He wrote it was not the right thing to do. I don't see why not; it's horrifying.

Guillén: Having now completed your first feature, what have you learned? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Gregory: I would have definitely shortened the first act.

Guillén: Which some reviewers have criticized.

Gregory: A lot of people have criticized. As I said, even people who liked the film still criticize that the first act goes on too long. The worst side of that is that some people aren't getting through that first section to the rest of the movie. I wanted it to be a film where you're sitting there thinking, "Is anything going to happen? Is this going to be a horror film?" So when things begin happening—specifically when the eye gets cut in half—it's that much more shocking when it happens because you've been wondering if the film is going to get violent or scary. A certain amount of atmosphere is built up until then but, certainly, no actual attack. So, yes, I would probably shorten that section. I wouldn't change it altogether. I like the idea of a slow build-up in a horror movie. It's not done nearly enough anymore, even though it used to be the way it was always done; the first act established the characters and the situation before the horror starts. Now that's not done so much.

Guillén: Has that criticism been brought on because the film's prologue was so forceful and direct?

Gregory: The idea of the prologue was to provide a sense that there would be shocking violence to come. If that prologue weren't there, the first act would be a lot longer for the audience to sit through. The prologue is over-the-top enough that it suggests the film will go back into dark territory. Originally, the prologue was even more extreme. Inbetween the priest getting hit in the head and getting an axe in his face, we poured Drano down his throat because he was praying and they were trying to shut him up. That was something we hadn't seen done before, which was also something we wanted to do: to make the killings original and something audiences hadn't seen before. We found out later that it had been used in a movie called Mother's Day. The other problem was that the production designer's only mistake on the film was that he made the Drano bottle a light blue, and everyone kept calling it Maalox. I got four comments from early screenings asking why they were pouring Maalox down the priest's throat? That was definitely not the desired effect so I took that scene out altogether.

Guillén: Though Dead Channels audiences have the luxury of a world premiere screening on a big screen, my understanding is that Plague Town will go direct to DVD?

Gregory: It will have a week's run in New York. We'll have special screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, in Los Angeles, in various festivals around the world, so in that way it will be seen theatrically. My doubts about putting a film direct to DVD that doesn't have any names attached is that you are falling in with an enormous amount of other horror movies who, likewise, have no names attached. What we've found is that—when we have screened in front of an audience—the audience has responded quite well to it and have been positive about it, talking about it afterward. My advice to Dark Sky was that they really should show it more and get some word-of-mouth going before they distribute it on DVD. They agreed. They want to do that. They want to make Rosemary (Kate Aspinwall) into the key figure of the movie.

Guillén: Let's talk about Rosemary and how you've created her through costuming and make-up. She's blind, right? And her eyes are doll eyes, right? At first I wasn't quite sure if her eyes had been drawn onto the fabric. She is truly the iconic figure of the movie. Where did she come from?

Gregory: When we were writing Plague Town, Rosemary was always the character among the children who we wanted to be attractive, even though she has the deformities all the kids have. That's what makes it a little bit perverse for Robin in the situation he's in where she's being offered up to him and he's wondering what to do in that situation. That meant she couldn't look like a beast. She needed to be somewhat elegant, like a female vampire in Dracula's Daughter, something like that.

The idea of the doll eyes came up in the third draft of the script. Originally, she didn't have a mask at all. I was in a restaurant with the co-writer and they put a napkin down and I looked at the napkin and thought, "Wouldn't it be better if we had somebody who had wrapped something around her eyes with eyes on it?" It's an effort to make her look normal, but—by doing that—they make her even more bizarre. The idea evolved into actual doll eyes stuck onto the mask.

Guillén: That idea of masking not only Rosemary's particular appearance, but also of the masks several of the children were wearing, emphasizes the presiding need to appear normal. Being that they're relatively isolated creatures, where is that impulse to appear normal coming from? Is it from seeing their parents' normalcy?

Gregory: I think it's a parental thing for the outsiders because they're guarding their secret. They don't want other people messing in their business. It's quite a British thing. If someone has a problem, you don't want the neighbors knowing your business. They prefer to sort it out amongst themselves and their family. They create these masks or appendages so that they can, fleetingly, look normal if they happen to encounter someone from the outside. Specifically what it was, I saw a documentary on the BBC about World War I and how—when soldiers had come back from the front lines with half of their faces blown off—they would create these bits of face to try to make them look normal and they were actually quite well-made. The way they looked on camera, for a second it looked like their face was intact; but—as soon as they moved—it was shocking because you could tell it was not a human face.

Guillén: And, of course, there's clearly the reference to The Phantom of the Opera.

Gregory: That's right.

Guillén: Where did the idea of genetics gone wrong—the plague in the film's title—come into play? "It's in the blood." The horror of blood gone wrong.

Gregory: That idea started with The Night of the Living Dead where Romero didn't explain what the problem was; the problem was just happening. Those characters were faced with the problem and had to figure out how to deal with it. The idea of something wrong in the blood line, whether caused by the water or something else, underscores that something is happening in the town that has obviously messed things up with the children both physically and mentally.

Guillén: The parents may not be deformed but they're a little unhinged as well.

Gregory: [Laughs.] I often see this: when you're a restaurant and there's a kid running around unchecked and you're thinking, "Why isn't that parent taking care of that kid and telling him to sit down and be quiet?" But, moreoften than not, they don't do anything. They allow it to run around and take food off of other people's plates, things like that. Parents frequently ignore that kind of problem. They rationalize, "They're just kids. They'd just doing what kids do. You can't blame a kid for being a kid." They do that rather than disciplining the child or teaching the child correct behavior. And if you bring this up to such parents, they will be offended that you've brought it up.

Guillén: That's telling that you would call a child "it." [Laughs.] Another narrative element I found intriguing was the gender reversal of the victim; having it be Robin, a male, who's tortured. Not that the girls don't also encounter problems of their own; but, somehow Robin's story is forefront.

Gregory: Right. Both men are emasculated. The father is completely emasculated. He's completely useless and has no control over his daughter. He makes all the wrong decisions. Robin, of course, will go on to be completely beaten and tortured and has the longest suffering throughout the entire film. That was intentional in the same way having Rosemary as the lead bad person instead of a big hulking man with a knife or a chainsaw. It was something I deliberately wanted to flip around. It was an easy thing to do. It wasn't particularly clever. I just thought it would add that little bit of difference. Girls do like horror movies—even though they're often considered porn and a boy domain only—but, that's not the case at all. I like the idea of placing a feminist—if that's the right word—intervention into the proceedings.

Guillén: Carol Clover—in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film—proposed that when men are viewing these horror movies, they're not really thinking of the women as women; they're projecting an odd gender reversal and identifying themselves with the victimized women, thinking, "What if I were a woman and this were happening to me?" And that's what genuinely scares them.

Gregory: That's right. Though I think Plague Town's story revolves around children and pregnancy and its ending may resonate more frighteningly and shockingly to a female audience than a male one. That seems to be the case from the feedback I've been getting at the early screenings, which makes me happy because that was the idea. I wanted to play with the gender roles.

Guillén: So where to from here? Plague Town 2?

Gregory: [Laughs.] Plague Town 2! We've written a story for Plague Town 2. But, no, I'm working on two different projects right now, both horror movies, but it will depend on which one reaches the finish line first. I intended to have a script finished by the time I completed Plague Town, which is probably the right thing to do when you're going around places and passing yourself off as a filmmaker. You should probably have your next project ready; but—due to budgetary reasons and whatnot—me and John ended up having to edit Plague Town as well and so I haven't had any time to write. I need to find time.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask, do you go under a pseudonym when you serve as a film's editor?

Gregory: Tod Corman, yes.

Guillén: Why is that?

Gregory: The name comes from Tod Browning and Roger Corman. I initially did that from the early days when I was doing everything. I wanted it to seem like there was somebody else involved in the production. [Laughs.]

Guillén: It's more horrifying to be a single agent?

Gregory: Exactly! But I kept my own name on this film for the editing credit.

Guillén: What do you hope audiences will take from your first feature?

Gregory: Honestly, I have enough faith in the horror audience to not be offended by the fact that Plague Town has a slow build-up; but, the problem I'm having is with festivals where programming committees have to watch 600 movies and usually give a film 15 minutes before rejecting it. Plague Town is not a good movie to do that with. Once the horror starts happening, it comes thick and fast, though it does take a little while to get there. I would really like to show Plague Town around to festivals like Dead Channels or at special screenings in front of audiences because I do think audiences will respond to it. It's a little esoteric but it's got plenty of staples of the genre.

Cross-published on
Twitch. Photo of David Gregory courtesy of Fangoria Magazine.

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