BRINGING BALLYHOO BACK: An Interview With Daniel Griffith, Part 1

When you’re the new guy on the scene, you have to try a little harder to get noticed.  Daniel Griffith’s work suggests that he has taken that maxim to heart: he’s relatively new to the world of home video special features but he’s quickly carved out a name for himself by giving his all to the extras he’s produced for several cult film titles.  The style he brings to these productions shows a real cinematic flair, often including fun touches like elaborate title sequences and musical scores.  Griffith is also not shy about the going the distance to cover the full behind-the-scenes story: he’s created feature-length documentaries for the recent home video releases of Dark Star and Twins Of Evil.

As a result, his work showcases a high level of cinephilia – and you’ll get the lowdown on how it all began with this first part of Schlockmania’s interview with Griffith.  Prepare to get into the mind of a hard-working, dyed-in-the-wool film fanatic made good…

At what age did you get into movies – and what were the movies that inspired your cinematic obsession?

As far back as I can remember, motion pictures have played essential role in my life. From an early age, I was exposed to many film genre’s… all ranging from contemporary to classic. My grandfather introduced me to westerns and crime drama’s, while my father ushered in the sci-fi/fantasy films. But it was my Grandmother and Aunt who really made me fear the dark. They were the harbingers of all things gothic and chilling. From Vincent Price to Freddy Krueger, I watched them all.

But it was the first horror film they exposed me to that really played a part in my cinematic obsession. On a dark summer night, I was subjected to THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. Now, as a four year child, I was already terrified by the supernatural events transpiring on the silver screen. But then, to be told that it was all a ‘true story’, well… that was the beginning of many sleepless nights.

However, that experience helped me appreciate the fine line between fact and fiction, and how easily it can be manipulated to spin a good horror story. Come to think of it, that was also my first exposure to the art of ‘ballyhoo’ being applied to a motion picture. The theatrical one-sheet itself states that the film is “based on the bestseller that made millions believe in the unbelievable”. Now, how could you avoid any film claiming that?

Has your filmmaking focus always been documentaries or have you experimented with narrative filmmaking?  And if you could make a feature film, what kind of film would you make?

My focus has always visual storytelling, regardless of genre or type. I do love documentaries, almost as much as I love narrative film. But I fell into documentary filmmaking by accident (or chance).

While everything was falling apart on a web-series I had been developing for over a year, I realized that I could visually tell a story without the participation of actors or a large crew. With a documentary, the crew could be as minimal as myself. All I would have to do is research each story and find the right individuals (or interviewee’s) to bring it to life. THE WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY (the feature-length documentary on distributor K. Gordon Murray) was born out of that rationale.

Looking back, I was very naive. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I would later discover that documentary filmmaking is far more taxing than narrative film, and less rewarding.

As far as what type of narrative film, who can say? Most of the screenplays I have written in the past defy most of the genre conventions. I have always admired filmmakers who strive to re-invent a particular genre. But since I have always been a follower of supernatural-based short fiction and pulp novels, most of my projects (so far) are within that realm of storytelling.

How did you get into producing bonus features for DVD’s?

While I was developing the K. Gordon Murray documentary, I was approached by DVD producer Cliff MacMillan to provide bonus materials for a special edition of the William Grefé snake thriller, STANLEY (for the now defunct BCI ECLIPSE). From there, I was asked to produce material for Shout! Factory’s MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 box sets and the rest is history.

Your featurettes tend to have a distinct style in their visuals and editing – how would you describe your style as a documentarian and how much influence does the subject matter have on the look/feel of each featurette?

The film or subject I base each documentary on always plays a role in the final style and approach I take. Besides the film itself, I am also fascinated by the era in which it was created. History, in general, has always fascinated me. So, before I determine the ‘look’ of my documentaries, I research the history surrounding the production. This includes all the pop culture influences of the period. Then, I let the information simmer, stimulating my creativity, until I engineer a contemporary spin on it. In a way, it’s like I’m holding a mirror up to the past. The mirror exist in the present, but its reflection captures the look and the feel of a bygone age. I like to think that my documentaries, however playful they can be, are not only a tribute, but a tangible link to the accomplishments of those who came before us.

What inspired the name “Ballyhoo Motion Pictures” for your company?

The name of my company, and the design of its logo, is comprised of several unique personal events. The logo itself hearkens back to my own childhood. When I was growing up, a local television station would host a horror show every Friday night called “Friday Night Frights”. On one particular Friday night, they were scheduled to air William Castles 1959 classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Well, blame it on an overdose of pizza or too many red vines, but I passed out in the floor, in front of the television set, long before the program even started. However, once that first pre-credit scream echoed from my TV, I shot up off the floor. And, for the next 70 minutes, my eyes were glued to the screen. That was my first introduction to William Castle, a cinematic showman whose influence extended beyond the movie itself.

Castle was also the first filmmaker that helped me visualize the connection between motion picture promotional tactics… and the ‘ballyhoo’ found on the midway of any traveling carnival circuit. Well, circus and sideshow history being another passion of mine, when it came time to identify myself with a company name, BALLYHOO was my first and only choice.

And if you watch my logo closely, you will see an illustration of Castle on the right-hand side of the screen, gesturing to the ’emerg-o’ skeleton opposite him. The resounding scream you hear is the same scream that woke me up as a child. I guess the Ballyhoo logo is my way of saying, “WAKE UP! The show is about to begin… and you won’t want to miss it!”.

One of your first documentaries was a featurette about the William Grefe snake-horror flick STANLEY – sadly, most people haven’t seen it because the DVD it was on quickly went out of print.  Can you tell us about how this job came together and are there future plans to revive this doc on another disc?

As I mentioned before, the project sprung out of my work on the K. Gordon Murray documentary. I had interviewed Bill Grefé (the director of STANLEY) for the Murray documentary, and he had expressed to Cliff MacMillan (at BCI) that I would be the right person to document STANLEY. Bill really believed in me and encouraged me to take the job. And since several of the individuals involved with STANLEY were also historically connected to the Murray documentary, it was almost kismet.

The documentary turned out to be a great success, and the unfortunate ‘swan song’ DVD release of BCI ECLIPSE. However, the special edition STANLEY dvd is now available in a limited release from CODE RED, with all the bonus feature intact. Which is great because we all believed in the title, especially Cliff. I really he took a chance on me and I will always be grateful for that. And of course, Cliff would go on to do remarkable work at Shout! Factory.

Speaking of William Grefe, you’ve also got a feature-length documentary going about his career in the works.  Can you tell us what it will involve and what its current status is?

The William Grefé documentary, entitled “THEY CAME FROM THE SWAMP”, highlights his entire film career. The documentary also contains over 25 interviews, from veteran actors to special effects technicians. It even includes comments from William Shatner, who not only starred in Grefé’s IMPULSE, but also actor in several Rum commercials for the director. Which, by the way, will be included in the documentary.

Currently, I am tracking down better film materials to pull clips from. But hopefully, that search will come to an end in the near future.

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