THE RED SHIRT CHRONICLES: Part 3 — Working With Romero, Phase 1

The third part of Schlockmania’s interview series with DVD producer Michael Felsher is devoted to his work on the special edition releases for George Romero’s films.  He’s worked on several over the last few years and has become friends with the king of the zombie flick, progressing from documenting Romero’s work after the fact to capturing his filmmaking process on set (including making cameos in some of his films!).  In fact, Felsher has worked with Romero so often that this is merely the first half of a two-part extravaganza devoted to their collaborations.  This introductory salvo focuses on Felsher’s retrospective work on two key Romero titles, Creepshow and Night Of The Living Dead

You’ve been quoted as saying CREEPSHOW is your favorite horror film.  What was it about this film that captivated you?  Also, what is your favorite story in the film and why?

Well it’s ‘this close’ to being my favorite horror film.  That distinction is held by another Romero movie, but CREEPSHOW’s real significance in my life was that it was the first horror movie I ever saw.  I must have been about 12 or so, and my father asked me if I wanted to watch this scary movie but that it was all pretend and just for fun.  With that I viewed CREEPSHOW and I was off and running as a horror fan.   Every time I think about it, I have to thank my father for introducing me to horror in that way..  I never had nightmares or psychological problems due to horror films.  That’s not to say I didn’t have psychological issues, but it wasn’t because of horror movies anyway

The great thing about being introduced to scary movies with CREEPSHOW is that, like the tagline says, “It’s the most fun you’ll have being scared.”  My dad was smart to not start me off with something like THE EXORCIST.  That came later.  CREEPSHOW  was the perfect “first taste” for a potential horror film fanatic, and while I had always been attracted to the dark moments in films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and STAR TREK II, it wasn’t until CREEPSHOW where I signed on to be a horror fan full-time.

DAWN OF THE DEAD though was what shaped my ambitions as a filmmaker.  The level of detail, character development, and social awareness present in that film juxtaposed with the zombie carnage was, and remains, one of the most impressive balancing acts in film history.  I have a short list of filmmakers whom I consider personally inspirational and towering above them all is George Romero.  He has been my film school.  I doubt I’d been doing what I do now if it weren’t for his vision and independent spirit.

So I guess all of this is his fault in a way.

You’ve also been quoted as saying Romero is your favorite director.  What elements of his work inspired your fandom – and what is your favorite of the DEAD series?

Well I could go on forever about what George’s work has meant in my life and what I find so enduring about his films.  At the end of the day, I respond so much to his characterizations and his willingness to speak his mind about the world we live in.  And yet, George doesn’t feel the need to drag out the soapbox and hammer these views into us constantly for a couple of hours.  Let’s face it, there are numerous elements of DAWN OF THE DEAD that are about as subtle as a brick thrown through a plate glass window.  It’s not hard to see the comments on consumerism and social behavior in a film that takes place inside a commercial mecca like the Monroeville Mall.  But George’s approach is not to focus the film’s attention on these visual elements, but instead compose the film around a group of characters whose various interactions and personalites attract your attention away from the obvious flash of the living dead and the shiny products in the store windows.  Then it becomes about the people and not the place.  My favorite scene in DAWN OF THE DEAD is the dinner between Stephen and Fran where she rejects his marriage proposal.  I love this moment because I realized I was completely into their relationship and their internal dramas and had forgotten all about the zombies and the carnage, etc.

Plus, in his best films, George refuses to give you all the answers.  We never get a definitive cause of the living dead outbreak in the DEAD films.  George has said, and I agree, that it really doesn’t matter what the cause is, so why bother wasting time explaining it.  In reality, there are no definitive answers in most catastrophic events, and the only thing worth putting time and attention to is simply surviving and moving on.  The answers don’t mean anything if you don’t make it to the sunnier side of the street.

In MARTIN, you can easily make a case that Martin is or is not a real vampire.  A lesser filmmaker would have given you the proof one way or the other, but George allows you to make up your own mind.  There is a respect for his audience that George puts out in all his films that is exceedingly rare in filmmakers.  He doesn’t do the soft sell or the spoon fed narrative.  Plus, he knows how to have fun.  MARTIN, DAWN, KNIGHTRIDERS, CREEPSHOW are all films that are simply joys to watch for the sheer love of the filmmaking medium that’s being displayed.  George Romero is truly one of the most unique and important independent thinkers in cinema history.

As for my favorite film in the DEAD series…how do you choose?  They are all so different from one another.  I mean DAWN will probably always be my favorite just because of when it came into my life and the significance it has had for me personally, but I’ve grown to adore DAY OF THE DEAD a great deal.  It’s such an honest, downbeat, realistic portrayal of the literal breakdown of humanity’s last surviving elements.  I remember disliking the film intensely when I first saw it, because I made the mistake of expecting another candy-colored comic book adventure like DAWN.  DAY is its own unique and nihilistic beast, and the themes and ideals that George worked into DAY ring loud and true even now some two decades later.  It’s an incredibly prescient film in a number of ways.

In 2008, you added another classic to your repertoire by editing the documentary Dimension Extreme DVD of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  How much latitude did you have in creating the documentary’s narrative and how do you feel the finished product fares in the hierarchy of George Romero DVD supplements?

ONE FOR THE FIRE is difficult to discuss in some ways.  The NOTLD doc project was something that I had been kicking around a little bit with a few folks over the years, but in the end, George Romero’s manager and producer Chris Roe and another filmmaker and friend Rob Lucas paired up to make what was intended to be the definitive NOTLD documentary which would interview everyone still kicking, as well as all-new visits to the locations, etc.   I wasn’t involved in the shooting of it, and quite frankly at the time I was knee deep in preparing DIARY OF THE DEAD stuff for Dimension Films, so I wasn’t even really thinking about it.  Then a series of events happened which led to the idea of Dimension putting together an official restored 40th Anniversary Edition of NOTLD and acquiring Chris and Rob’s documentary for inclusion on the DVD.  This was a very long and drawn out process and I can’t really go into a lot of the behind-the-scenes activity here, but let’s just say some friendships were seriously strained and eventually broken for good during this time, and not everyone was on board with the Dimension plan.  During this whole process, the original editor of the piece left the project, and I volunteered to come in as a replacement.  It was  all done with the best of intentions.  These were my friends and they had worked their assess off shooting this thing, and I wanted to help in any way I could.  Well if you couple the behind-the-scenes strife with the fact that I was also working on DIARY’s mammoth load of material, and the fact that we only several weeks to pull everything together, you can imagine that the process of working on the NOTLD doc was not an easy road to travel.   There was so much footage and so little time, and quite frankly my time management was not what it should have been and in the end I wish I had brought someone else in on the project to help out, but I was still laboring under the delusion that I was an editorial “superman” and could get it all done.  Turns out I am very mortal indeed.  Still it must be said that whatever negative memories I have of the process, the public and critical reaction was wonderfully supportive, and I feel very strongly that ONE FOR THE FIRE overall is an invaluable look back at the film, with some moments that are both heartbreaking and inspiring.  There was a lot of love poured into this thing, and I think in the end, the finished piece does represent that passion pretty well.

One thing that must be noted however, is that one of the crucial decisions that caused so many issues for us, was made during the doc’s post-production.  There was a last-minute change by Dimension to release the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – 40TH ANNIVERSARY DVD as a single disc release, rather than a two-disc set that was originally planned.  The doc would originally have been on the second DVD and could have been as long as we needed it to be, and in fact, my initial rough cut of the doc was over two hours long.  There would have been some additional trims and adjustments here and there, but the two-hour version was much more detailed and quite frankly was a much more fully rounded experience overall in my opinion.  But then literally 4 days before the documentary had to be delivered, the 2 disc set was altered to a single disc set, and I was given marching orders that the doc could only be 75 – 80 minutes in order to fit comfortably on the disc.  So coupled with my aforementioned scheduling and time issues, imagine having to reconstruct and shave over 40 minutes of material out of the documentary over the course of a three day weekend.  Not a pretty picture, and I continue to hold out hope that a potential BluRay release of NOTLD down the line might allow for me to go back and release the original longer version of ONE FOR THE FIRE.  Oh well, we’ll just have to wait and see…

Back to the subject of CREEPSHOW: you worked on a Special Edition DVD of  this film for the U.K. market.  Why did this happen only for the U.K. market and why haven’t any of your extras for that release seen the light of day over here in North America?

Working on a documentary and DVD for CREEPSHOW was again… dream project-ville.  I was literally documenting the making of the film that put me on this particular path in the first place.  Sometimes I find it very hard to believe that I am in this position, but I am always so thankful for the people who have given me chances and opportunities when they could just as easily given them to someone else.  To have my own business, and work on films and projects with people I’ve admired since I was a kid.  As Conan O’Brien said on his final Tonight Show for NBC, “I have been the recipient of more good fortune than anyone else I know”.   It’s humbling actually.

Anyway, CREEPSHOW, remains to date probably the most complicated retrospective documentary I’ve done, aside from ONE FOR THE FIRE for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that’s another can of worms altogether.  In short, while I was working on DIARY OF THE DEAD in Toronto, I was talking with George about CREEPSHOW and he was lamenting the lack of any documentary or DVD done for CREEPSHOW, so I made a proposal and sent it to the studio who controls it here in North America.  The response was a flat “not interested”.  So I pretty much thought that was the end of that, until it came to my attention that Universal was on the verge of releasing the film on DVD in the UK for the first time in the format’s history later that same year.  I contacted them with the same proposal, and they couldn’t have been more enthused about the idea.  And we were off.

I did shoots in Pittsburgh, New York City, Los Angeles, and Toronto and ended up with so much stuff it was almost overwhelming.  Everyone from Adrienne Barbeau to Tom Atkins, to even Ed Harris(!) came out to go on-camera about this one, and I was given so many great behind-the-scenes photos from so many people I was drowning in a sea of riches.  Not to mention Tom Savini and his goldmine of video footage from the set, and his makeup photo archive.  It was a shame that so many of the actors were no longer with us such as Viveca Lindfors, Carrie Nye, and E.G. Marshall, but everyone had very vivid memories of them so it still felt like they were there.  We almost managed to get Leslie Nielsen at the tail end of production, but there just wasn’t anything left in the budget to make it happen and time was up.  Sadly he just passed away, but the stories about him and his fart machine are amongst the highlights of the doc.

In the end, JUST DESSERTS: THE MAKING OF CREEPSHOW was one of my favorite documentary projects, and along with the audio commentary with George Romero and Tom Savini, as well deleted footage and other special goodies, I really was proud of the CREEPSHOW UK DVD.  Universal even hired a friend of mine to put the cover art together which utilized the original Jack Kamen cover art!  It was  a blast, and they were fortunate also to be able to use a new HD master of the film for the DVD that had been created by the domestic studio.  At least they did that for us!

In the end though, the sad thing is that the documentary may never see the light of day here in the States.  Recently the U.S. Distributor released a BluRay of CREEPSHOW here, and when I found out about their plans months before, I contacted them about putting out the stuff from the UK release on the BluRay…I could even give them HD materials if they wanted!  Again…the reply…”not interested.”  I was seriously bummed and remain so, but at least it’s out there for people to see if they really want to.  Thank you internet ordering!

If you enjoyed this interview, there’s plenty more where it came from.  Tune in next Friday and you’ll get to read all about Felsher’s documentary work on Romero’s modern horror epics, covering everything from Land Of The Dead through Survival Of The Dead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.