SHARKS, SEQUELS AND SHEMP-ING: An Interview With Jack Perez, Part 1

Chances are if you’ve been into cult movies at all within the last few years then you’ve heard of Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus.  This direct-to-video quickie with Lorenzo Lamas beat the odds by escaping the genre flick ghetto and becoming a popular meme all across the internet.  However, you probably don’t know much about the circumstances behind its making or the person who sat in the director’s chair.  The answer to the latter question is Jack Perez – and don’t think that the presence of his name on this film means he’s another cut-rate schlockmeister.  There’s a lot more to Perez’s career than this left-field success.

In fact, Perez has had a truly fascinating career since the mid-1990’s, working in a variety of genres and mediums as he’s carved out a colorful and thoroughly unpredictable career as a director.  He’s done episodic t.v. (both fictional and reality), two direct-to-video flicks for The Asylum, several t.v. movies, 2nd unit directing for studio films and a handful of critically-admired independent films. The connecting thread running through this diverse set of credits is the passion of a true cinephile.

It is Your Humble Reviewer’s hope that this interview gets you to investigate Perez’s work further, for he is a talented individual who has managed to do a lot with a little in circumstances that would make other filmmakers give up.  He’s also on the cusp of a breakthrough with his recent, well-reviewed indie film Some Guy Who Kills People.  Read and enjoy, for Perez is truly “one of us…”

Like so many genre guys, you were a “monster kid” who made his own Super 8 films growing up.  Could you describe a favorite production from this era?

I killed my little sister off repeatedly. Not because I disliked her (though she did chuck all my precious STARLOGs and FANGOs off our second story landing after I pissed her off one time).  I had her wrapped in ace bandage playing a mummy vs my frankenstein.  Did a lot of claymation creatures and flying saucer attacks, earthquake and flood miniatures and Kong-esque sequences.  My wife’s favorite is a stop-motion short she refers to as “Masking Tape Man” – which is a giant killer robot (whose head is made of crumpled up newspaper wrapped in the stuff) who rolls down a cardboard Broadway running over toy soldiers.

You’ve told me before about the summer of 1979 being a watershed time for you as a fan of genre films.  Could you elaborate on that a bit for Schlockmania’s readers?

Well, the famous Newsweek issue of that year had us all going. The one tagged “Scary Summer” featuring a close-up of Sigourney Weaver from the end of the original ALIEN, which was soon to hit screens. The article described an avalanche of horror just around the bend, including Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, Frankenheimer’s mutant bear movie, PROPHECY and John Badham’s gory/sexy DRACULA with Olivier as Van Helsing.  It all had us going.  Did I forget Cronenberg’s THE BROOD? It was a good year to be a horror kid.

In the past, you’ve said Sam Peckinpah and Alfred Hitchcock were two of your favorite directors.  Please explain what draws you to their work – and pick a favorite from each man’s filmography.

Totally different filmmakers of course. But both were beyond passionate, personal and actually freaks (which I consider myself to be).  They were also in complete command of the medium – all aspects – while clearly pursuing a very personal agenda.  They inspired me and continue to do so. I suppose if I had to pick one favorite of each it would be NOTORIOUS and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

Your first film was America’s Deadliest Home Videos, which was a “found footage” film several years before The Blair Witch Project made that concept into an entire subgenre.  How did this project come to be and how do you feel about it today?

Well, like all first movies, there’s a lot of it that I don’t like.  But the good thing was that I was young, intense and trying to do something different to help make my directorial mark.  The parameters were a 7K budget to be shot on hi-8 video in Racine, WI with orders to cram in as much sex and violence that I could into whatever story I could hatch. I got no fee, but the story would be mine.  I hated the look of 30 fps video and knew any drama shot on that format would be fighting a “cheap” association, so I came up with a concept that utilized the poor look as an advantage, making it an inherent part of this story, about an obsessive camcorder enthusiast who ends up pointing his lens in the wrong direction.  It was also before MAN BITES DOG, which followed a similar design thread.

It’s worth noting that America’s Deadliest Home Videos features Danny Bonaduce as well as a young Melora Walters.  What are your memories of working with these two actors?

Well, I had cast Melora (then unknown) in my NYU thesis film, STARING AT THE DARK, and thought she’d be terrific as the moll in ADHV.  Luckily, she agreed to come to Wisconsin and live in a creaky house with all of us for a month. Danny I didn’t know, but producer Mick Wynhoff had a connection to Danny, who at the time was in the news for all kinds of weird shit.  It was a score, because he lent a certain strange, comedic curiosity to the piece.  And he was totally cool – both him and his then-wife Gretchen (who actually played his wife in the movie and even agreed to do a nude scene!).

From there, you moved on to television by directing episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.  What was it like working for Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert?

Well, Raimi wasn’t around that much as he busy making his own movies, but Tapert was the guy driving the thing.  Tapert hired me to direct second unit action sequences on the HERCULES tv movies (just prior to the series) after I cut a couple of HERC promo trailers for him as well as a doc-portrait on John Woo making his first American pic, HARD TARGET (which Renaissance produced).  When the second unit stuff went well, he hired me to do what was essentially the pilot ep of XENA (titled “THE GAUNTLET”), which had Xena rebelling against her women & children-murdering army and having to survive the titular ritual (which was actually quite brutal – a woman being beaten savagely with clubs by fifty male soldiers).  Anyway, Raimi and Tapert were both very cool, like kids really, and the whole experience was like a jacked-up, pro version of making my wacky super-8 movies.

On those shows, you also worked directly with action heroes Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo.  Any memories you can share about working with this dynamic duo?

Kevin and Lucy were both very down to earth and funny.  Initially, Kevin was really the only American in NZ during the series (with the exception of the rotating US directors and occasional shipped-down character actors) so we Yanks bonded pretty quickly.  Lucy was a Kiwi and last-minute replacement for the part, and since this was really my first pro directing gig, we both kind of leaned on each other during the shoot. She killed it of course.  Doubly cool was the chance to do a “battle of the giants” sequence, because in my episode Xena and Herc have a big knockdown, drag-out fight before ultimately joining forces to take on Xena’s old army.

On a related note, you’re friends with Josh Becker and even appeared in his cult fave Running Time as a “fake Shemp.”  Can you tell us about that experience and how you ended up in the film?

I first met Josh while in NZ doing HERC. He was old friends with Raimi and Tapert and already an established director, whose films, THOUGH SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT and LUNATICS: A LOVE STORY I had admired.  He was also a cinephile and a particular fan of old war movies (like myself), so we hit it off right away.  I think the very first shot I did on the series was a second-unit insert for Josh’s HERCULES & THE MAZE OF THE MINOTAUR movie.  I believe it was a close-up of a sorcerer’s creepy hand gesturing for coins, or something.  Later, we wrote a XENA ep together and I helped Josh conceive a sequence in RUNNING TIME.  For my contribution, Josh cast me as a raisin-sized shemp-convict in an early sequence who tells Bruce Campbell to “fuck off” as he’s being discharged from prison.

Your next film was The Big Empty, an unorthodox variation on the Los Angeles noir.  How did this indie production come to be and what you drew you to it?

I consider it my first serious feature.  An attempt to do something personal, but also genre-inspired and with a degree of cinematic finesse. Actor/writer James McManus and I were best friends since NYU and made a great writing-directing team.  We inspired each other and set out to make indi features together.  We first tried with LA CUCARACHA, spending 5 years hustling to get the financing and almost making it happen with William Hurt playing the role that Eric Roberts ultimately inhabited.  We finally realized no one was going to front the dough for that movie until we proved ourselves with a smaller, similarly-themed piece. Our friend, John Schultz had just successfully directed his first movie, BANDWAGON using friends and crew out of ZM Productions (where many of us were  employed making behind the scenes documentaries) and it seemed like the best way to go.  So we followed his model, raising 150K and shooting over 24 days on 35mm in LA.  Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE and Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION were key influences, but really we were attempting to fuse our love of Chandler and noir with more intense character-driven stories and mixing in all our own personal issues and neuroses. Looking back, it was the certainly one of the most creatively exciting and satisfying experiences of my life.

1998 found you directing the award-winning La Cucaracha.  This film seems to pay homage to Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia in a number of ways.  Care to share your thoughts on that subject?

LA CUCARACHA became easier to fund once THE BIG EMPTY had played some festivals and won some awards.  It was bigger in scope that TBE, but followed a similar theme – that of a man trying to find meaning in his life by throwing himself down a dark path that ultimately beats the shit out of him.  BRING ME THE HEAD and all of Peckinpah really was in it, as were other  essential “south-of-the-border noirs” ,TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, WAGES OF FEAR, THE BRIBE and RIDE THE PINK HORSE.  The vibe was Mexico as a strange and dangerous escape (and possibly doom) for messed up gringos.  But BRING ME THE HEAD epitomized this, really – and Peckinpah had poured his soul into that movie – you could feel it in your bones.  I wanted to make that kind of fearless, fuck-all movie more than anything.

La Cucaracha also features one of Eric Roberts’ best performances.  What was it like working with Roberts and do you two stay in touch?

I was a big fan of Eric’s – POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE was a key movie for me when I was in college. And like everyone else I had been blown away by his work in STAR 80 and RUNAWAY TRAIN. So I was a little intimidated working with such a powerful, established actor. But he was very cool. We hung out at his house in Sherman Oaks and talked about the character and choices and he understood how serious I was taking this project, how important it was to me, and I also think he sensed that this was his opportunity not to do just another action role but really sink his teeth into character work. And he totally rose to the occasion.  He’s also very down to earth and funny, and he and his wife Eliza are big animal rights people (as my wife and I are) so we hit it off immediately and remain good friends.  I last visited him on the set of THE EXPENDABLES where he played the baddie. Between takes, we clowned around with Stone Cold Steve Austin, who is a full-blown riot. Surreal.

2000 found you directing a pair of t.v. movies, one about The Brady Bunch and the other about Mary Kay LeTourneau(!).  How did these gigs come your way and what is the experience of directing a network made-for-t.v. film like?

I made both MOWs for Rocket Science Labs, which was the evolution of ZM productions where I started making behind the scenes docs.  Chris Cowan and Jean-Michel Michenaud, who ran the company, had both contributed to the making of THE BIG EMTY (Michenaud composing the film’s score) and they trusted me.  I was actually quite excited about doing a movie about the Brady Bunch, as I had watched the show religiously growing up.  That world was really part of the fabric of my childhood – a colorful, safe 70’s fantasy.  Of course, the reality was that Robert Reed (playing Mr. Brady) was a closeted homosexual who had been trained to play Shakespeare and was now on this increasingly immature TV show, and he was growing agitated, constantly arguing with producer Sherwood Schwartz and ultimately getting barred from the set.  This stuff was really fascinating to me and I liked the idea of all this darkness going on beneath the family-friendly facade.  I decided to design it like a film noir and Shawn Maurer (who had shot both THE BIG EMPTY & LA CUCARACHA) joined me again as cinematographer.  Of course, all Fox cared about was the scandalous components and so I was able to get away with some pretty unusual visual stuff. We made it like the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE!

Same thing with THE MARY KAY LETOURNEAU STORY.  I made that VERY dark and atmospheric, this time working with DP David Bridges (who had shot WALKER for Alex Cox).  We used very wide lenses and nightmarish lighting.  It was a cool piece with a wonderful performance by Nina Hellman as Mary, but at the end of the day Fox decided not to air it.  I think they used it as a tax write-off, which is pretty lame.

Be sure to return on Friday 7/6 for part two of this interview, which will cover topics like Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus, Adam West, Wild Things 2, Some Guy Who Kills People and much, much more…

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