2007 DEAD CHANNELS—Interview With Jack Hill
Because I can never get enough of a good thing, and despite the fact that Jack Hill provided generous context and backstory to both Spider Baby and Pit Stop at Dead Channels Sleazy Sunday double-bill, I still had a few threads I wanted to pursue. He was gracious enough to grant me some time Monday morning before heading north to the wine country. We countered the cool San Francisco morning by sitting close to the overhead patio heaters at the Phoenix, until driven away by bullish cigarette smokers.
I won't be the first to mention that softspoken Jack Hill does not come across as the man who was one of Exploitation Cinema's reigning champions, proponent of tits and ass feminism, and blaxploitation classics such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Perhaps it's all the years of meditation he's practiced that has allowed him to keep his career in moderate perspective and to persevere through the ebb and flow of popular appeal. He certainly comes across kind and centered.
Michael Guillén: Roland Hill, your dad, was art director in the '40s at Warner Brothers, then moved on to the Disney Studios. He helped created the interior design of the Nautilus for Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and designed Sleeping Beauty's castle for Disneyland, as well as Tom Sawyer's Island. What influence did he have on your wanting to become a filmmaker or on your filmmaking?
Jack Hill: Not so much. My mother was a music teacher so I got into music since I was five years old.
Guillén: Which might explain your original impulse to become a film composer?
Hill: Yes. I was in music. I was a concert and performing artist and arranger and starting to write music. I wanted to learn how to score films. That's how I got into the cinema department at UCLA, so I could learn about films so I could write music; but, then I started writing, and they encouraged me to do more. I ended up directing some student films. I loved music and I loved being in music but I had a little 8mm movie camera since I was 14 and I made some films with friends and edited them myself just for fun. I never thought about it as a career.
Guillén: Warner Brothers back in the '40s appears to have left a strong imprint upon you. I've read that your favorite movie was White Heat, which you consider to be "the last great American film." Why do you say that? What is it about White Heat that you feel sets such a benchmark?
Hill: Because it's got that spirit to it, that in-your-faceness, that impudence that I enjoyed as a style. I and most of my friends used to go see all the Warner Brothers movies. They had much more of a fire to them than the big studio films because they were made with lower budgets under difficult circumstances. They had these great stars, a different kind of star, Bogart and Cagney, people like Virginia Mayo, who were very different.
Guillén: That's what you mentioned yesterday afternoon and I thought that was such an interesting analogy between the Warner films in the '40s made on their tight budgets and limited means—and the creativity that came out of that—comparable to the low-budget rapid-fire independent film making of the '60s-'70s. In both instances, by the grace of good casting some great movies were made. Researching your work, that's one of the comments attributed to your success: the impeccability of your casting. That made me curious about how you went about it. It's my understanding that when you were at UCLA your adviser was Dorothy Arzner? Is this the same Dorothy Arzner who invented the mike boom?
Hill: That's right.
Guillén: So how did that work? You're in film school and you're casting your student projects, did Arzner come in to help you find actors?
Hill: No, not at all. Dorothy basically had the feeling that you needed to make your own mistakes; but, she would let you know you were doing so. "You're making a mistake, but, go ahead." Francis Coppola and I both really listened to her. We worked on each others' student films and, in fact, when he created his theatre he named it the Dorothy Arzner Theatre, in recognition of what he had [learned] from her.
Guillén: Arzner's a director who was nearly forgotten. Most people don't remember what she's done.
Hill: Since the Women's Movement, she's become a little bit more recognized.
Guillén: Speaking of UCLA film school, the one person you didn't talk much about yesterday was Francis Ford Coppola and your interaction with him. My understanding is you did a few films with him? You both helped out with The Terror. IMdb lists about four or five directors on that film. How does that work?
Hill: We were not billed as co-directors. Roger Corman was the main director. But some of us put bits and pieces together over a period of time.
Guillén: Was that the same with Dementia 13? You came in later and added some pieces?
Hill: Francis had not really finished the picture. There was only about 60 minutes of film there, which he finished and then he went on to bigger and better things with major studios. I added some additional sequences that I wrote myself to pad it out to a full-length running time.
Guillén: So your student film The Host, then, was your true first film?
Hill: I had done a directing assignment before then, a 15-minute film; but, The Host was what they called at UCLA a "major production" of a half an hour film. You had sets and a lot more where you could finish it; but—in order to finish the film and do all the post-production—you had to have your own money for it. They didn't have a budget for it. So my edit of The Host sat in my garage for 30 years until Quentin Tarantino decided to put it on the release of Switchblade Sisters as a DVD extra. He got Miramax to pay for the cost of finishing it, to put music with it.
Guillén: Regarding that student project The Host—and I'm sure you've probably been asked this a million times—but, many folks have recognized its influence on Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Hill: Yeah. [Steve Burum], my camera man on that student film, was the second unit camera man on Apocalypse Now. And there was another fellow who was also a student at UCLA at the time who [served] as an advisor on the film for Francis, and according to [Burum]—who I saw some years later—he said they were making jokes about making Jack Hill's student film. It was the last act of [Apocalypse Now], which was the part that didn't really work.
Guillén: So you don't mind that Coppola "reworked" it?
Hill: No. You always borrow things from other films. I've certainly done my share.
Guillén: Regarding the casting of Spider Baby, yesterday you talked about Sid Haig, Lon Chaney, and the two girls. The fellow who played Peter Howe ("Uncle Peter"), Quinn Redeker—who later went on to become Oscar-nominated for co-writing The Deerhunter—he was such a charming character in Spider Baby.
Hill: He was perfect, yeah.
Guillén: What made his characterization work so well? Did you write his character that way? How did you come up with this guy who was so normal he was odd? He was like a bastion of '50s Americana in the midst of all that zaniness.
Hill: I didn't really understand this at the time; but, the critic who wrote about the film and then in personal messages to me, said that was really me. That was my point-of-view character, totally oblivious to all this craziness going on around him.
Guillén: And very good-natured about it too. That's what I loved and laughed about later when I was thinking about him. He was so good-natured, poking Sid Haig's character in the ribs, inducing that strange facial reaction from Sid.
Hill: The way [Quinn Redeker] played that character was beyond my imagination of what he could do with the part to bring it to life.
Guillén: You were saying that you didn't feel you directed your actors much in Spider Baby; that they basically knew what they had to do and did it for you.
Hill: Yeah. The first rule of medicine is "do no harm" and that was my rule.
Guillén: The pool of talent in Spider Baby is amazing. I was enjoying watching the movie and recognizing faces from other vehicles. Carol Ohmart as Quinn's selfish sister Emily, she'll always (for me) be the woman who backed up and fell into the vat of acid in House on Haunted Hill.
Hill: Yes. At the time I did [Spider Baby], I had not seen that picture. I didn't know she had backed up into a vat of acid.
Guillén: What felt odd yesterday was to recognize her from a movie I loved as a kid. She's remained in my mind all these years. That's one of those cinema moments I'll never forget. Or maybe it was the skeleton on a string William Castle had swooping over the audience in the theater?
Hill: Yeah, I had never seen that film. I knew him from all the Charlie Chan movies.
Guillén: That's what my friend Frako Loden mentioned as well; but, I'm sorely unfamiliar with the Charlie Chan movies. I read somewhere that Moreland ran into problems after the Civil Rights Movement? His style of acting became disparaged?
Hill: Yeah, he didn't feel that his style, his character, was demeaning like Stepin Fetchit, which it really was. He was bitter about it. They lumped him together with those character actors that did demeaning roles, shuffling around. He wasn't like that.
Guillén: I've read that you killed him off early in Spider Baby to symbolically kill off the stereotype?
Hill: Yeah, that was my conceit through the whole movie. Like murdering Santa Claus in the first reel.
Guillén: Well, as a film writer relatively unfamiliar with your body of work and catching up to everybody else—I'm part of your new audience actually—what really struck me yesterday was how thoroughly entertaining and engaging your early films are, in contrast to the seemingly hundreds of current movies I've seen this last year out of Hollywood that I don't even want to write one sentence about; movies that I forget as I'm watching them. What was so refreshingly apparent in the two films I watched yesterday was their heart. There's a lot of heart in your movies. I really cared about the characters in both scenarios. Is that what you're going for?
Hill: That's what makes films work for me. That's what I try to do.
Guillén: I also read that there was some talk a few years back regarding a remake of Spider Baby. Is that still in the works?
Hill: There's actually a couple of things in the works. There's a fellow who I met who was a big fan of Spider Baby; he wrote a script for a remake. It's not really a remake as much as it is a script inspired by the original. The characters are still there but it's a totally different milieu. It was picked up and they were going to make it; but, they had a problem over the rating, blah blah blah, and so they have writers rewriting it. But it's still out there. It went into turnaround for Lionsgate and so he's still struggling with it; but, I was recently approached by another company who wants to remake closer to the original.
Guillén: You have no issue with having it remade? I feel it's so perfect as it is. It has this heart, as I said. My fear would be that these days when they make remakes, the heart is the first thing they take out.
Hill: Well, that's true. But I'm waiting to see what kind of story they come up with. It will be quite different because it's a thing of its time, although it's timeless in some ways. To do a new version, it's a new audience today so they want to make it in a much more up-to-date style. We'll see what happens. If they make a remake, it will make more people interested in seeing the original, I would think, so it's fine with me.
Guillén: Where did the story for Spider Baby come from? You had the script ready to go, so that when the producers surfaced, you were ready to go; but, where did the original story come from?
Hill: It came to me overnight.
Guillén: Did you have the slightest inkling that it would have the influence it would have? It created the template for kooky mutantly-inbred families, with elders in the cellar, that prey upon unsuspecting guests. It's become something of a genre all in it's own and you were one of the first to really do that, weren't you?
Hill: Yeah, I think so; but, I don't know [how much of an influence it had]. The film was not widely seen in the film industry at the time. I don't really think there's necessarily a connection there.
Guillén: Okay. So maybe it was an idea smoldering in the American psyche, just waiting to manifest itself? A way America had of thinking of itself? I do think the idea of the family out in the country that seems ordinary but isn't has definitely become one of the staples of American horror.
Hill: I don't know. People have suggested that some of the other guys who made films like that had seen Spider Baby; but, I doubt that. They wouldn't have been able to see it because it was lost for a long time.
Guillén: That leads to a question that's difficult for me to formulate. You've been around for a while, you've done your work in different climates, different cultural zeitgeists, different mindsets, spanning generations of filmgoers—
Guillén: —Is it weird for you to be a survivor and have all these ascriptions made after the fact? Or to be given titles like the Master of Exploitation?
Hill: At the time I was making films and they were hitting number one at the box office, no one even knew who I was. And the next year no one even remembered the film.
Guillén: Directors weren't that well considered back then?
Hill: No. Most people weren't aware of who was directing a film.
Guillén: Roger Corman. How did you get hooked up with him?
Hill: Through Francis actually. Francis started working for him when we were in school and he brought me in to work with him on some of the [films] he was doing. I had worked with Francis before on these so-called "nudie cuties"….
Guillén: Are we talking The Bellboy and the Playgirls?
Hill: Yeah. I edited that actually. It's actually called The Playgirls and The Bellboy. The original title was The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and then they switched it around and it became a big hit because of the way people read the name; they saw the "playgirls" first.
Guillén: Makes sense, I guess. What was your involvement with The Wasp Woman? On IMdb you're listed as uncredited but it's not really your film?
Hill: No. It was a film that Roger had made. [On] quite a number of little films, the running time was too short for television. He was selling his whole library to television and some of the films were too short. It was only 70 minutes and they needed a [certain] minimum of time for TV. [Roger] assigned me this problem, to add 20 minutes to the running time of the picture. I had to figure out a way [to do that]. The actors were no longer available except one guy who couldn't see anymore and couldn't read a script. He was the only one who was available. I could get him. Basically, what I did was to write a kind of prelude to the film because I couldn't add anything to the story in any particular way without the actors. So I added a new beginning to it and I also added a few bits and pieces to tie that together in different parts of the movie just to pad it out. That was one of those learning experiences Roger had us do. Very valuable.
Guillén: It sounds like you learned a lot from Roger. Not the least of which was these creative strategies in response to low budgets.
Hill: Yes. I don't know whether I would have been able to do some of the things that I did without having had that training; but, Roger had a way of getting a maximum effect with a minimum of means. I see this mistake in expensive movies where they waste a big, expensive set by putting actors against a wall and showing them in close-up. Roger would bring his actors out in front so that you would always have space in the background, a feeling of more size and space, which makes you feel like it's a bigger picture. It doesn't look like it was shot in somebody's livingroom. And there were a lot of other tricks he would use to get a big look for very little money.
Guillén: You spoke so thoroughly about Pit Stop at yesterday's screening that I don't have a whole lot of questions about Pit Stop; but I did want to mention that I grew up in Brawley, California so that—when I saw those sand dunes—I recognized them immediately. As a youngster, I actually was part of that dune buggy culture. That footage of that gathering: where did that come from? Did you piggyback on some event that was going on?
Hill: Yeah. It was a real event and I wasn't really there for all of it, I sent my second unit guy out to do all the camera work. He was a guy named Frank Zuñiga. He later went on to do all these true life adventures for Disney, where you go out and sit in a blind for six weeks waiting for something to happen. He was a clever guy. He did most of the setting up and organizing of the dune buggy [scene].
Guillén: Jack, I have to admit that I loved Pit Stop and I'm not a car person. I don't even drive. I've never even had a license. Cars are not my thing at all. And yet I sat riveted in the theater. That Figure 8 stock car racing was unbelievable!
Hill: It is, isn't it?
Guillén: So your comments about how you were hoping to catch a slice of Americana for foreign markets, you did it! You caught something. Do they even do that anymore?
Hill: I heard recently that they do, in the South. They have some tracks down there where they do that.
Guillén: Still some crazy people down there, huh?
Hill: Yeah. Texas probably. [Laughs.]
Guillén: And the editing was phenomenal. It was so tense. I actually chewed my thumbnail down to the quick.
Hill: I'm sorry.
Guillén: It made me so nervous, especially every time two cars would just miss. When they collided, that was a relief.
Hill: That was the fun of it. Hair-raising.
Guillén: Turning to your current collaboration with Mark Atkins. The two of you are reworking the scripts you wrote for the Boris Karloff tetralogy—House of Evil, Isle of the Living Dead (alternately, Isle of the Snake People), The Incredible Invasion, and The Fear Chamber—which you wrote for Mexican director Juan Ibáñez. I wasn't clear about one thing: are you taking the original Karloff footage and reworking it into a new vehicle?
Hill: No. We're making totally new films.
Guillén: Will you redo them with the same actor in all four films like Karloff did before?
Guillén: There was a period of time—because of the way distribution patterns shifted in the U.S. and before the video/dvd revolution—when your films were forgotten; when, in effect, you didn't have a film career.
Guillén: What were you doing?
Hill: I did scripts, which got made, a couple of them. One was for a Mexican company and I was supposed to direct it but the producer, again, just before I fell into the same problems.
Guillén: You have a lot of trouble with Mexicans, don't you?
Hill: [Chuckles.] Yeah. I've had quite a bit to do with them. Then I wrote scripts that were done in a Canadian co-production so they had to have a Canadian re-writers and directors. My last film I directed ended up being called Sorceress.
Guillén: That was a Corman flick also, wasn't it?
Hill: Yeah. That's a long story that's kind of depressing. I don't want to go into it. I had to take my name off of the picture.
Guillén: Corman didn't come through with what he promised, is my understanding?
Hill: Yeah, right. So I took my name off of that. For a long time I was doing writing and then I fell into Groucho's paradox, where he said, "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." The only [films] that people could really see me doing, I didn't want to do. I didn't want to do exploitation films anymore. I wanted to do real movies. It's ironic that the kind of films that I did are [now] almost considered a legitimate art form. At the time I wanted to get out of them.
Guillén: They are art! And that's an advantageous perspective you have that's so intriguing. You had this period of time where—you didn't go away and were still creating—but, for all effects and purposes your career was at a lapse. Then video brought your films back and a new audience discovered you and loved you, Tarantino among them. Is this a conflict for you? That this new audience is still appealing to your old films when you want to move on? Or are you being able to use that rekindled interest in your old films to move on?
Hill: Of course it helps a lot that my name is known and I got a little bit of respect for movies that were not respected at the time. That helps a lot. But the issue for me right now is finding the right [film] that somebody will let me do. You can't get financing. My wife and I have written a romantic comedy set in England that we've been trying to get done for a couple of years and there has been some interest in it, but….
Guillén: Is that A Perfect Wife?
Hill: Yeah, it's called A Perfect Wife. It's a beautiful script, the best work I've ever done, y'know? But a Jack Hill romantic comedy sounds like a joke so I have to do some other films first….
Guillén: It's like you have to start all over!
Hill: Yeah. I need to get one film out that gets attention so that I can be in a position myself that I can have the [creative control] to do a film like that.
Guillén: I would say that yesterday, watching Pit Stop, you meant for that to be an art film and it is an art film. Not only is it a valuable and historically significant slice of Americana, but it has this Mephistophelian theme that's universal. As I said before, I watch so many movies as a film writer, so many of them negligible, but I loved Pit Stop. This is a really good movie.
Hill: Thank you.
Guillén: So yesterday when Mark asked who among the audience wanted to see a new Jack Hill film and everyone cheered, that's a clear signal that we're hungry for your work, your vision, and we can only keep our fingers crossed that some producer who's paying attention will take a chance on your romantic comedy. I understand you also have another project emulating the '40s era of Warner Brothers? Tangier?
Hill: That's one I've been trying to get done for 20 years. It's a script written by a friend of mine, a very good writer, and I rewrote it heavily. It's a script that everyone who reads it thinks it's a great script; but, it's so offbeat they don't quite know what to do with it. It's the kind of [vehicle] where I'd have to get a major star attached to it in order to get it done. It's not a small film.
Guillén: Is it known that you're looking for a major star to get attached to the project? How does that work?
Hill: Nobody knows how it works. It's tough to do.
Guillén: And even moreso these days, it seems. You're saying it's a little offbeat and eccentric that people don't know what to do with it; yet, that was the allure of film in the '60s and the '70s and now most Hollywood product seems so homogenized and repetitive. Or it's a remake of a remake of a remake.
Hill: Well, this one is really original. There's never been anything quite like it. It's a really clever story. But another thing against it, it's a period picture. It's set in 1938. I will get it done someday.
Guillén: I really hope so, Jack. Thank you so much for your time today. I genuinely appreciate it. Enjoy the rest of your visit!
Cross-published at The Evening Class.