BRINGING BALLYHOO BACK: An Interview With Daniel Griffith, Part 3

After a long gap between segments – both interviewer and subject were busy with projects of their own – Schlockmania is proud to present the final segment of its epic interview with home video featurette auteur Daniel Griffith.  Topics covered in this final segment include his feature length documentaries on the films Dark Star and Twins Of Evil as well as the featurette he did for the recent Red Scorpion special edition.  Like the previous two installments of this interview, it’s full of intriguing insights into what it’s like to put together supplements for the home video market…

You’ve done a feature-length documentary on the John Carpenter fave DARK STAR.  What inspired you to go feature-length with this documentary and what is your favorite part of it?

When I was approached by VCI to produce the bonus material for DARK STAR, they were basically expecting one or two ‘simple’ interview featurette’s. But when I came back from the LA shoot with more than 10 interviews comprising over 25 hours of footage (including visits to the USC campus and studio locations), they were immediately excited with my proposal to produce and direct a feature-length documentary on the making of the film. I use ‘making of’ lightly here… since it is much more intimate than that. That’s why I refer to it as an ‘odyssey’ in the title (“LET THERE BE LIGHT: THE ODYSSEY OF DARK STAR”). It is more of a life journey.

There’s a lot of personal drama happening at the core of the DARK STAR story. You have these two creative individuals, before they became the genre titans we know today, working in collaboration on one of the most ambitious student films ever produced. To capture all the feverous electricity and all the frustration attributed to making something… out of nothing. But, somewhere along the way, their relationship began to strain. In the end, they would both part ways and never associate with one another again.

In many ways, it is the story about ones ‘first love’. It is a documentary about Carpenter and O’Bannon’s ‘first’ relationship with the medium they would forever be connected to. DARK STAR was their first ‘true’ feature film. Through that experience, they learned a lot about themselves and how they communicate their own vision/feelings. And like so many ‘first loves’, this one had a bitter end. But, they took what they could from the experience and moved forward. If they would have given up, the world would have been robbed of so many great films, beyond HALLOWEEN or ALIEN.

Telling this type of story also provided me with another unique opportunity to strip away all the accolades and accomplishments of the principle characters and allow the audience to know them on a student level. That was something very magical to me. Being a great admirer of those involved with DARK STAR, it was an honor to be able to tell the story of their origins within the film industry. And it’s not just a film about Carpenter and O’Bannon. So many talented individuals were involved with the film. It’s just as much a story about them, as it is anyone else.

My only regret is that I couldn’t get Carpenter interested in being directly involved with the documentary. No matter how I hard I tried to appeal to his good nature, he flat-out refused to be associated with the project. I guess, at the time, I took that personally, though I now understand why he denied my requests. He considers the film to be a ‘lark’, not his finest hour. I have to respect that. And sadly, the documentary suffers for it. But I found a ‘playful’ way to include his comments within the story, regardless. Every time his archival audio interview is used or referenced, I juxtapose it with the footage of the frozen Commander Powell, who is resting peacefully within the bowel’s of the ship. In the film, Powell is their absentee leader… and in the documentary, Carpenter is their absentee director.

You also premiered screened your DARK STAR documentary at a film festival in England.  Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

Well, I was contacted by the SCIFI LONDON film festival when news of the DARK STAR documentary get the internet. As it turns out, DARK STAR was one of the film selections of the festival in its first year, and they were now celebrating their 10th anniversary. So it made since to premiere the documentary on the making of the film there. And it was quite an honor, really. The documentary played to a packed theater at the BFI in London, something I never dreamt would happen. And the festival itself is wonderful!

It is also worth mentioning that the version of the documentary I premiered was the EXTENDED VERSION, which will premiere on the newly restored blu-ray release of the film this October (from VCI ENTERTAINMENT).

You moved into the world of Hammer Films with your documentary on VAMPIRE CIRCUS.  This gig took you to England – can you tell us about what this entailed?

When Synapse Films contacted me about the Hammer titles they recently acquired, I jumped at the opportunity to produce the extra’s for them. Little did I know that this collection of Hammer titles would lead me on a challenging path riddled with pitfalls and frustrations. You see, when Synapse said ‘HAMMER’, my ambitions went into overdrive. ‘You mean… a chance to produce documentaries on a group of Hammer titles that have rarely been seen or released on home video?’ I immediately put a list together of all the individuals I felt had dedicated their lives to the preservation of Hammer’s history. And it was through them… that I would connect with the filmmakers directly related to each production. Slowly, I discovered that a large portion of those involved with the Hammer titles DID NOT wish to be interviewed (for reasons I cannot disclose). Plus, my budget on these Hammer titles (collectively) was sooo minuscule, that I quickly had to make a decision of how much I wanted to put into the features. Of course, my passion for these films would gradually overcome my need for financial compensation, and I went for the most ambitious route possible (given my restraints).

On my trip to the UK, I was able to film interviews with historians like Sir Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, and Wayne Kinsey, as well as Hammer alums like director Peter Sasdy (for HANDS OF THE RIPPER and COUNTESS DRACULA), John Hough (for TWINS OF EVIL), Damien Thomas (also for TWINS OF EVIL), and more! I was also given the rare opportunity to film inside Hammer’s old offices on Waldorf Street in London, and various Hammer locations on the Pinewood Studio lot. Now that was a real treat!

Your most recent piece is THE FLESH AND THE FURY, an 84-minute documentary on the new Synapse release for TWINS OF EVIL.  It’s impressive how you sustain the length of this piece: was it intended to be feature length or did it grow into that running time?  Please describe the process of how it came to be.

When I first started the TWINS OF EVIL documentary, I only set out to direct a 30 minute featurette (similar to the one found on the VAMPIRE CIRCUS disc). But the story grew into a feature documentary that went beyond the film itself. I really wanted to incorporate segments that offered information on the origin of the CARMILLA story, as well as the various cinematic adaptations that were produced before Hammer/Fantale latched onto the property. In the end, I wanted to offer Hammer fans a full course meal, as opposed to a sampler platter. Hopefully, I achieved this goal without boring too many viewers. Haha!

One last question on the THE FLESH AND THE FURY: it incorporates some original footage you shot to illustrate portions of the documentary where the text of CARMILLA is read aloud.  What inspired this idea and what it was it like to shoot the sometimes racy footage?

Well, the entire concept for THE FLESH AND THE FURY was to create a 1970’s exploitation documentary, something that has never been explored with Hammer before. Most people remember Hammer as a respectable motion picture company that produced classic horror films. But actually, they were more of an exploitation film company, more so during the era in which TWINS OF EVIL was produced. Because of the relaxation of censorship in the UK, Hammer was able to interject more violence and nudity into their films. Therefore, I wanted to design to the documentary to ‘exploit’ this historical fact. For example, anytime I referenced a film, Hammer or otherwise, I would plug-in a still that contains a nude scene.

Regarding the Carmilla ‘recreation’ sequences, it was honestly a last minute decision. Instead of relying on historical illustrations or etching, I decided to cinematically visualize a few excerpts from the novella. But since there was no budget to experiment with, I had to depend solely upon my improvisational skills. I called in a few favors, I found a location locally, and then used a Chattanooga-based soundstage for the dream sequences. The results look as if I had taken a page out of the JEAN ROLLIN/MARIO BAVA book of low-budget filmmaking. And it was a challenge to put together. We only had around 4 hours to make it work.

Continuing on the Synapse topic, you also worked on the RED SCORPION release. Can you tell us about what you produced for that title?

For RED SCORPION, Synapse contacted both Red Shirt and myself to provide extra’s for the title. I decided to pursue actor Dolph Lundgren and produce a biography featurette detailing his career leading up to RED SCORPION, which I felt was the first film in which Lundgren assumed the role of the action star. Everything the actor worked on prior to SCORPION was just training for the quintessential 80’s/90’s action hero he would become. Sure, he was He-Man in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, but there he was an icon first, star second. In RED SCORPION, he is DOLPH LUNDGREN. That was the story I wished to tell. And Lundgren has such an amazing, charismatic personality. I sincerely hope I get to work with him again in the future.

You also worked on some bonus material for DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW.  Was this only for the blu-ray?

Yes, for the anniversary release of this made-for-television chiller I decided to interview just about every individual connected with the production for an in-depth documentary on the making of the film. I really feel that TV movies of the week seldom get the respect that they deserve. This was my chance to produce a documentary about a Halloween-based thriller that has touched the lives of so many people. And everyone associated with the film were very gracious with their time and materials. I immediately got the impression that DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW meant something special to each of them. So, I tried to capture their passion for the material and translate it to the screen.

An interesting thing that distinguishes you from other DVD extra producers is that you also make memorabilia (shirts, posters, figurines, etc.) for like-minded genre fans.  How did you get into doing this and what inspired it?

Creating promotional items and traveling to conventions as a ‘BALLYHOO ROADSHOW’ was a concept I had right from the start. I wanted to combine my love for cinema (as well as documentary storytelling)… with my sincere admiration for circus/sideshow showmen and their promotional tactics. I really longed to make film history tangible for fans. Offering these unique, exclusive items gives them something to connect to, something honoring the films they cherish. Besides, where would you find a promotional button for THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, or a t-shirt for K. GORDON MURRAY’S SANTA CLAUS? I mean, someone has to do it! Might as well be me.

If you could pick any film to produce a special edition DVD for, what film would you choose and what special features would you produce for it?

There are so many films that deserve the ‘special edition’ treatment, I really don’t know where to start. There are a few titles I would love to produce/direct a documentary for, but given the highly competitive atmosphere surrounding supplement production, I must keep those titles to myself. Who knows? I may be lucky enough to produce one of them someday.

To read Part 1 of Schlockmania’s interview with Daniel Griffith, click here.

To read Part 2 of Schlockmania’s interview with Daniel Griffith, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.