Morbido 2019: Gary Sherman Looks Back Over A Brilliant Career
One of the main events of 2019 edition of Morbido Fest is the tribute dedicated to the career of Gary Sherman, one of the most particular voices that were born from horror movies in the 70s and 80s. The filmmaker will present his first movie, Death Line – for many, his masterpiece – and will give a keynote lecture dedicated to the design of the special effects of Poltergeist III, one of the latest Hollywood productions that did not turn to computer generated effects to scare the audience
On the occasion of his visit to Mexico City, we had the opportunity to talk with him about his work, the reasons that led him to devote himself to cinema, the political intentions of his films and the uphill struggle with studios and producers to maintain his vision as auteur in each production.
I would like to start by talking about your first memories of the cinema, did you fall in love with a movie or a director?
It's funny, because one of my first memories of cinema is to see House of Wax (1953) in 3D with Vincent Price. I was about five years old and my brother took me to the movies, he was about six years older. He thought it would be very funny to take me to watch a horror movie at that age. There are parts of that movie that never left my conscience. At the same time some things happened in real life that drove me to cinema. I was always a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, as I grew up, there were some other people who became my adoration. Roman Polanski, for example, came to me at university, I became addicted. Movies like Knife in the Water (1962), his work in Poland and then on his return to the United States. I loved them. By the time I saw Rosemary's Baby (1968) I knew exactly what I wanted to dedicate my life to.
You worked in advertising before DEATH LINE, did you enjoy that job?
I enjoyed it, but it's been 35 years that I don't do advertising work. So it was wonderful to make these 30-second movies with gigantic budgets. While writing Death Line, I did a gigantic campaign of Procter & Gamble for a product that was going to be launched in Europe. They spent millions on that campaign, we shot six different commercials. Finishing that I threw myself into Death Line, I wrote the last draft while filming those commercials, my movie had a quarter of the commercial budget. Thirty seconds with four times more budget than the entire movie.
You were quite hippy when you filmed DEATH LINE, did you see that kind of political commentary in other movies?
I was a rather political man, that's why I was living in England. After the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, I could not continue in the United States. It was not a country where I wanted to be, it’s very similar to today. Now I have fewer choices, when I was young I just grabbed my bags and left. Now I want to stay and fight to make things better. But I must say that if Donald Trump is re-elected I may return to Europe, because we have fought hard for four years but I don't know if I can continue for another four. If this country is stupid enough to re-elect him, I don't know if I want to live here.
One of the things that England has is that they think they are superior to everyone else. They always said that in the United States we are racist and other things, I just wondered: are you not? I replied that I had never lived in such a racist place, in England things happen that would not even happen even in the worst years of Alabama. It is class distinction, which for me is the same as racism. Then I said to myself: fuck it, England, here is your racism.
It is a very interesting movie since its inception. The strange thing is that there is a rich man, a government official, in the subway. It's the mystery that unleashes the movie, no one can believe that he was in the subway!
His place is not in the subway, he should never be there, but he is looking for prostitutes. He was there to see what he found, a character who didn't care if he found women or men, just wanted sex and thought he could find it underground, like many other people.
The "monster" of your movie is also a social creation, it's not bad just born in a rotten system.
There is nothing evil about him, he is the hero of the movie, not the villain. So I wanted it from the beginning, he is the only empathic character in the whole film. No other of those who appear have that degree of empathy. The others range from inconsequence to evil. There is no human who is a hero in the movie. He is the only character I love, he is a victim, a descendant of victims. It is the idea behind everything, it belongs to a class of people that those above do not understand. How would they do it? They have never lived below.
I understand that you hate the American cut, RAW MEAT.
Yes, I hate it. I have in my possession a copy in technicolor of Death Line, I will soon donate it to the British Film Institute. It's beautiful and it's the original, my movie cut. In 2001 the plan was to project it at an alternative festival in New York, the man in charge of the Lincoln Center and editor of Film Comment in those days received a call from Guillermo del Toro where he said: “If you're going to pay tribute to Gary Sherman and you're going to show Death Line, I want to be the moderator”. Obviously they accepted instantly.
Then I came to New York and they pick me up, I couldn't believe that the movie was going to be seen at Lincoln Center, it was so incongruous. Upon arriving at the rehearsal, a bear-man on the other side of the square started running towards me shouting “Gary Sherman, Gary Sherman!” He hugged me, lifted me and shouted “He is the reason I make movies! He is the reason!”
I had an amazing weekend with Guillermo and since then we are friends. At some point, someone offered me to make a Death Line remake, Guillermo called me as soon as he found out and threatened me: “If you make a Death Line remake, I kill you. You can't improve perfection. ”
There is no reason to make a remake. I have control over the movie, so as long as I live there won't be a remake of the movie. Now with the streaming boom it would be interesting to see how the story unfolds in that format, a series. I've talked to people about it, but we'll see. Who knows.
Why do you think it is easier to insert political commentary in horror?
I think it can be done in other genres, I could not write a comedy although my films have comic elements. I wrote a romantic comedy once, but it was complicated to do and very political. No one would let me direct it. Everyone told me the same thing: “you sell us the script and keep making horror”, but if I can't direct it, it will never see the light of day.
Horror is wonderful for the political because you are not just preaching. You can make a movie that everyone enjoys even if they want the political message or not. My reason for making films, beyond politics, is to entertain the public, I like to entertain the audience. Scare, laugh. I think it happens a lot to horror directors, they are the least selfish filmmakers. Most of the great directors of the genre make their films to entertain the public, all that is in their head when they make the film is that. In the other genres, the filmmaker's ego gets involved. It becomes pretentious. In horror you can do both.
Years later, you decided to immerse yourself in a franchise that was full of problems since the beginning: POLTERGEIST. I think it's a sensitive issue for you because Heather O'Rourke passed away during production.
I didn't want to do Poltergeist. The MGM directors needed to make that movie, they came to ask me if I wanted to make Poltergeist III, I told them no. They replied that they had been very helpful in my career and that I owed them a favor. They had seen Wanted: Dead or Alive, the first cut, and they loved it, that's why they insisted.
When I agreed to do it, I set two conditions: I wanted to film in Chicago, because I wanted to turn the John Hancock Center building, one of my favorite pieces of architecture, into the largest haunted house in the world; and I wanted to do all the practical effects. They thought I was crazy, but they already knew that beforehand.
I watched the movie as a child and I really don't remember paying much attention to it. However, I returned to it recently and I was surprised. The effects are wonderful, especially the mirrors.
The effects are the only reason why it is still seen. All were made on the set. With the current anger against digital effects, fanaticism has only increased. Horror fans don't like digital, they should save it for science fiction. The horror tends to be more real, Poltergeist III has almost become a hymn, because we did nothing digital. Nothing, only at main titles.
It's like an encyclopedia of how to make special effects, I will give a lecture about it in Mexico City. If it wasn't for the effects, I wouldn't think about that movie, it's the one I like least of the ones I made. I am proud of the effects and how we made them, it was a very fun experience.
It is like a magic show.
David Copperfield could have done it. It is wonderful to explain how we did it, people are surprised at the process. It's a lot of fun, many still call me to advise them about it. For example, Edgar Wright is a great friend of mine and is currently filming in London, Last Night In Soho, he wanted to make an effect with a mirror in the movie, but nobody knew how. Through a videoconference, I explained to the crew the process and helped them execute it. Edgar is one of my favorite filmmakers, I love his work, it's amazing. Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Baby Driver (2017), for me, are two of the best films of this century.
His films have many moments that remind yours.
We are fans of each other. He loves Dead & Buried and Vice Squad, he really loves Vice Squad. He saw Death Line as a child, it left a very big impression. It makes me proud of my work. Having fans like Edgar or Guillermo del Toro is amazing, because they are people I respect. The fact that they love my work is exciting. It is the best adjective that occurs to me.
Returning to Poltergeist, we had many problems because we could never finish filming. First because Heather was sick and then passed away. Because of her death I did not want to follow the movie, nor did the rest of the team. We were forced by the studio, they had invested a lot of money and didn't want to lose it. They forced me to finish it. As we lacked scenes, we stretched everything we could. It lasted 17 minutes less than we needed. We finished it, but I didn't care, nobody got involved in the promotion because of Heather's death. We thought it would disappear and it happened for a while, but suddenly everyone started to get excited about the effects.
They are very good.
It is a compilation of effects, not a movie. If you want to see it, do it, but it is not my favorite.