BRINGING BALLYHOO BACK: An Interview With Daniel Griffith, Part 2

As the first part of our interview with Daniel Griffith should have established, he’s quite the industrious young man.  However, if you think you know what his filmography is just based upon what you can find on current DVD’s and blu-ray’s, think again.  He’s got a whole ream of projects going at any given time, like a long-in-the-works K. Gordon Murray documentary.  You can read all about that documentary here as well as some information about the extras he’s done for Shout! Factory’s line of Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD’s…

You’ve been working on a feature-length documentary about the career of b-movie mogul K. Gordon Murray – how did you become interested in his work and what inspired you to transform this interest into a documentary?

Well, I was first exposed to K. Gordon Murray at a very early age, I just didn’t know it until much later. One blustery December afternoon, I turned on the television to watch my favorite Saturday matinee movie program. And behold! It’s a rather surreal Santa Claus film. And what’s this? It features a devil, too. Now, I grew up in a semi-religious household, where I was assured that Jesus was ‘the reason for the season’ and Santa Claus was merely a myth. But apparently, Jesus was going to sit the holiday out and let Santa Claus take care of business. I was shocked and amused, all within the same gleeful moment. This film was not just foreign, it was alien! And that was the only time (that I know of) that the film aired on one of my local stations.

Now, flash forward to the early 90’s. A fellow projectionist at the cinema I worked at during my High School years brought me some VHS tapes of recently aired Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes (my local cable network did not provide Comedy Central at that time). Well, hidden on one of those beloved VHS cassettes was the episode dedicated to SANTA CLAUS. When I saw the title card on my television scene, I knew that it was the same perplexing holiday film from my childhood.

I immediately reached for a pencil and started writing down the names of the individuals associated with the film. And the first name on the list was a gentleman by the name of K. Gordon Murray. Quickly, I reached for my copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide and looked up his name. Nothing. WHAT? That can’t be right. Then, I checked another source. And another. Still nothing. Remember, this was before the internet was in full swing.

But out of that frustration was born a determined young man who would eventually find out who K. Gordon Murray was and why he chose to inflict this holiday film upon the unknowing public.

In the years that followed, I would discover that K. Gordon Murray was one of the unsung geniuses of cinema history. Not in the ways that would make Griffith or DeMille memorable but important nonetheless. I think that is why I am partial to films and filmmakers that are overlooked. Like me, they had to fight harder to be heard. It wasn’t just given to them. And like me, they have a natural passion and enthusiasm for cinema. Sure, their point-of-view and business practices may be skewed or misguided. But at their core, they were their own type of artisans in the world of film. You have to respect that.

I’ve heard a story about how you put together an elaborate historical-recreation scene for the K. Gordon Murray doc.  Can you tell us about this scene and how you assembled such a massive amount of production value?

Well, a large portion of Murray’s story takes place against the backdrop of the 1950’s and 1960’s… principally, aging drive-ins and movie palaces of that era. But, when I started looking for images and/or footage to help visually illustrate these segments, I kept coming up dry. I slowly began to realize that, in order to convey some of Murray’s wild and wacky promotional exploits, I was going to have to recreate them, myself. So, I scouted out a few locations, contacted two local ‘car’ clubs, and had the local newspaper post a casting call. Surprising, it all came together, and the footage looks pretty authentic. Especially when you consider the budget I was working with, which was basically enough to feed a family of four at McDonalds. But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the assistance of several friends and the cooperation of an entire town. I will always be thankful for their collective support.

A lot of elements came together on that documentary. I tracked down all the individuals I needed to help tell the story. I was fortunate enough to get veteran actor ROSS HAGEN to serve as host and narrator for the documentary. Everything came together perfectly. It is shame that, in the end, the release would be stalled.

The K. Gordon Murray doc has been in the works for a few years now.  How long have you been working on it, how close is it to completion and what are the future plans for it?

That is indeed the ‘million-dollar’ question. Of course, if I had a tenth of that as budget, there would be no need for you to ask that question. The version of the documentary that I edited together exclusively for the Turner Classic Movies television premiere is complete and ready to go. Unfortunately, I cannot do anything with that, or any other version of the documentary, until some rights issues are resolved. I am currently looking for a way around the roadblocks. But I am not giving up on it, I assure you. I have invested so much time and energy into that production. I really want to share the fruits of those efforts with the world.

As part of your Ballyhoo operation, you run something called the “Young America Horror Club.”  Can you explain what this entails?

Ha! That is the fan club I organized online for the K. Gordon Murray documentary. It is actually based on a genuine subscription-based ‘club’ that Murray devised long ago. You see, in the early 1950’s, when Murray licensed and dubbed all those Mexican horror titles for television, he needed a promotional edge that was compatible to the new medium. The idea fell through early on, but the gimmick was a sound one. It was actually based on the radio program campaign’s used decades earlier, like the ‘Little Orphan Annie Secret Society’.

Continuing on the Murray tip, you’ve done a featurette about SHANTY TRAMP that has not yet been released – can you tell us a bit about it and when it might see a release?

Well, the featurette was intended for a future SOMETHING WEIRD VIDEO special edition of the film, but the project was scrapped. I don’t know why, actually. In the end, I wanted to give Mike Vraney (as well as the crew at SOMETHING WEIRD) something in exchange for all their assistance on the Murray documentary. Mike has been a great supporter of the project from the very beginning. So, this featurette was my way of saying, ‘thank you’. Regardless, the same information discussed within the featurette is highlighted in the ‘complete’ Murray documentary. Nothing is lost.

You’ve done a lot of work for Shout! Factory’s line of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 releases – what’s your favorite extra of this series thus far and why?

Again, this is an example of how the Murray documentary led to other projects. Shout! Factory approached me with the idea of producing a ‘making-of’ featurette for the ‘SANTA CLAUS’ episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. That’s right, the same episode that sent me on this whole journey in the first place. Well, I loved the series and was somehow drawn to the film, so I really couldn’t saying anything but an very enthusiastic ‘YES’. Lets face it, when would there be another opportunity to create a ‘making of’ documentary for a film like SANTA CLAUS?

Well, the success of that featurette led to my next project for the company, and probably one of my favorite MST3K bonus features to date, the BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS documentary, entitled “NO DIALOGUE NECESSARY”. I really had a blast putting this together. I even wrote a narration that resembled the ‘broken’ voice-over found within the feature, itself. Plus, it is a wacky concept from the beginning. A BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS documentary??? But there are so many worthy titles out there that do not get the same treatment! And that is what makes it charming, I guess.

From there, I produced and directed documentaries about the making of BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (CITIZEN WOOD), DEVIL DOLL, ROBOT MONSTER, GAMERA, JAM HANDY and THE BRUTE MAN (TRAIL OF THE CREEPER). The TRAIL OF THE CREEPER project is probably the one that I am most proud of, though. It is not satirical, like the YUCCA FLATS production. It is a tragic, human story about the b-movie actor, RONDO HATTON, and the terrible affliction that both created and destroyed him. I honestly think it is my most moving documentary to date.

I continue to work on projects for future sets. Just recently, I produced and directed a documentary on produce/distributor ROBERT L. LIPPERT (THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIPPERT), as well as a featurette based on the television career of SANDY FRANK (YOU ASKED FOR IT). And there’s much more to come in future installments of the series. I simple adore working for Jordan Fields and the crew at SHOUT! FACTORY. They really give me carte blanche on these documentaries, and for that… I am very grateful.

COMING UP NEXT… the making of the feature-length documentary based on John Carpenter’s DARK STAR, and the world of HAMMER bonus features.

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