Buckle up kids, Dick Miller is on his way courtesy of Elijah Drenner, director of a little flick called AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE.
Drenner has been bumping around since 2007, diligently focusing his talents on short documentaries that have made their way to the special features section on DVDs and Blu-rays you most likely have sitting on your shelf right now. Now, Drenner is turning the camera on his next subject: Dick Miller! A staple of B-movies, drive-in screens, and grindhouse cinema. The Bronx Badass. The man who sold The Terminator some heavy weaponry. Mr. Walter Paisley himself. But Drenner isn’t flying solo on this; he’s asking you and the greater film community for help. Drenner started a Kickstarter page to help fund the project. He even convinced Dick to give away some of his very own scripts to help win over some backers. Drenner conquered 42nd street, and now he is turning the camera on one of the most recognizable mugs in the business… THAT GUY DICK MILLER. Count us in.
Drenner sat down with us to give us the skinny on his new project and also talk a little shop, film collections, car chases, David Hess, and the definitive Dick Miller performance. Following the interview is a list of links which includes a link to Dick Miller’s Twitter feed which is a must read and another opportunity to donate to this project. In the meantime, dig the Drenner.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: What was the first film you saw that had an impact on you?
ELIJAH DRENNER: Honestly, it sounds like baloney but the earliest memory I have is seeing REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS at a very early age late at night on HBO. It was simultaneously arousing and frightening. Pat Ast, Wendy O. Williams, and all the other girls, it still to me is the most satisfying women in prison film, it is what every women in prison film should aspire to be. The scene where Pat Ast opens the door to let the girls into the cell block and the camera dollies in and pans across the room, there is no other shot like that in any women in prison film. I mean it was made by a gay director and he knew what he was doing.
I just talked to Tom DeSimone (director of REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS) about a week and a half ago so it’s funny that you mentioned that. We had like fifteen minutes and we ended up on the phone for an hour and a half talking about his work and all the crazy stuff that went on during the shoot of REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS with Sybil’s manager at the time, Wendy O. Williams being who she was, and Pat Ast brought all kinds of crazy with her, it sounded like a nightmare but he digs that film and has zero regrets.
Yeah, you know I am convinced Sybil Danning is not in on the joke. She is so straight-faced in that movie. I mean she’s German so she has no humor. I just slap my forehead when she shows up because she is playing it so straight and so sincere, she plays it like Shakespeare but that’s part of its charm. Have you ever seen CAGED? The old 50s women in prison film?
Yeah of course, that’s one of the originals.
Yeah I mean it’s a remake right down to the cat stomping, it’s amazing. It’s a masterpiece; I could talk about that film for hours.
So is that the film that set you on the exploitation and genre path?
Not really. I’ve always loved all sorts of movies. I am not prejudiced to any kind of movie. I just want to be entertained. My earliest memories also include stuff like DARK CRYSTAL and animated movies too but for whatever reason REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS just sticks out for me.
I am right there with you man, I mean here I am running an exploitation film site but my favorite film of all-time is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and honestly E.T. is right up there as well so…
Yeah, same here. Someone told me one time that finding a good exploitation movie is like thrift store shopping for records; every now and then you find a really good one, and that to me is what defines what an exploitation movie is.
Most people obviously know you from AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE but you’ve been bumping around since 2007 working on documentary shorts for special features on DVDs and Blu-rays. How did you get your break into that kind of work?
I lied to Dark Sky Films and told them I could do what I did (laughs), but I knew I could. It was the easiest job I ever got in my life. I took them the SPIDER BABY project, I actually originally took it to Blue Underground and (they) suggested I go to MPI Media and they listened to us and Jack Hill was on my side and Jack said I could do it and they gave me the job. It was amazing.
What are some of your favorite shorts that you’ve been able to work on? I mean you’ve done just a ton of work.
Wow, gosh I don’t know. And there’s even more stuff that I’ve done that I didn’t grab credit for. I just did some stuff for my friend Nick McCarthy called THE PACT that was just picked up by IFC and that’s a pretty good low-budget horror movie. It was nice to do something contemporary for a change. I had a good time working on FORBIDDEN KINGDOM the Jackie Chan and Jet Li movie. In terms of exploitation stuff though, I really like what we did on THE NURSES COLLECTION over at Shout Factory earlier this year.
I didn’t know you worked on that. That was a great set with really well done extras.
Yeah, I mean I love those movies, more than I love women in prison films. I didn’t get to contextualize how I feel about those films the way I wanted to because there wasn’t enough space on the disc and not enough budget. I don’t think we are going to see any more Corman stuff from Shout Factory though. That collection may be the last one. They’re over the Corman stuff and really pushing for the Universal horror titles they acquired like THEY LIVE. It pains me to say but I think the Corman titles may have run their course. I am just glad they happened the way they did. Many of those movies are great and they deserved the transfers they got.
They really did an amazing job. From the packaging to the transfers, they just respected the titles and it was good to see that kind of care given to those.
They spent the time; they’re attractive to look at. The spines look great on my DVD case and they’re all really affordable so it’s great.
Speaking of your shelf, what does your collection look like?
It’s about three rows deep on a large bookshelf and scattered in other various places. I have a big chunk of discs from Germany, I do a lot of work over there and I have a whole box of multiple copies that they gave me but I don’t have a region 2 player. I have a massive to watch pile that continues to grow, so I like to think it’s modest but maybe it’s not. I just get the stuff that I think I need to have. That’s my justification.
And how are they organized? Alphabetical? Genre? Director?
Good question. It’s kind of grouped by directors or labels. Like all my Criterion discs, all my Corman Shout Factory titles, if it’s a big director who’s spread across a lot of different companies or if they’re odds and ends they go by label. All my Tartan, all my Dark Sky, all my Japanese stuff or something like that. Even then I still can’t find shit.
I go by genre so it’s the genre hybrids that fuck me all up.
I know! I was looking for NAKED CAME THE STRANGER the other night but I think I loaned that to someone because it’s not with my Randley Metzger stuff but maybe I started a Levi Richards section. Anyway, it’s nowhere to be found.
I had the same problem with GORDON’S WAR. It wasn’t in my vetsploitation and it wasn’t in Blaxploitation and it ended up being in my war section. Unfortunately I don’t have an Ossie Davis or Paul Winfield section.
Now that would have been in my Shout Factory section.
Shit, that’s right. It came on a double feature with OFF LIMITS.
I’ve never seen GORDON’S WAR is that any good?
Oh yeah, it is literally about five minutes of plot and eighty-five minutes of blowing shit up and shooting people who deserved to be shot and one really impressive car chase.
OFF LIMITS doesn’t sound attractive to me so I am hard pressed to buy that juts for one film I haven’t seen.
It’s worth picking up just for that chase. I mean in exploitation films VIGILANTE has one of my favorite chases and it’s not VIGILANTE good but it’s pretty close.
I was watching McQ the other night and I love that car chase at the end on the beach. That’s such a satisfying movie to watch.
Have you ever seen BLAZING MAGNUM?
Is that the Italian movie?
I am trying to think if I’ve seen that. A lot of those Italian police films blend together.
Yeah they do. It has John Saxon in it…
Oh well then it’s even more blurred. That doesn’t help much (laughs). That’s like; the one with Franco Nero, or the one where Henry Silva is a bad guy… and then you just narrow that down to 20.
Since we’re on exploitation, let’s talk some grindhouse. There are a lot of people making these grindhouse tribute films or exploitation tribute films. Sometimes they are done really well; I was a big fan of DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK from the Soska Twins, but usually these films just kind of suck. As someone who has studied the genre as you have what are your thoughts on this new style?
I have kind of mixed feelings about it. I just want to watch something good. It’s tough for me to get behind contemporary grindhouse movies just because they didn’t call it that back in the day. Don Edmunds didn’t say when he was making ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS “okay guys; let’s go make a grindhouse movie”. They were just out to make, as Don called it, a nine day tit and ass film. Is that really the motivation behind people now? I don’t think so. I run hot and cold I guess.
AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE kind of put you on the map for people who weren’t familiar with your work already. It is full of some incredible history and even more incredible interviews including the late David Hess who gives one of the odder and almost disturbing interviews I’ve seen. Can you kind of let us behind the curtain a little bit and tell us about meeting him and what he was like?
Well he knew his image; he was probably the single most gracious person we interviewed. I had never met him before but a friend of mine knew him and vouched for us and he just let us in. He plays with his image, there is no doubt about that. I wish there was some kind of story that he made us uncomfortable or we were scared for our lives but that’s not the case. I actually thought it was going to be a bust because his daughter came home during the interview with her BFF and they were making all this fucking racket and he was yelling at them to be quiet and what you see in the film which adds up to maybe 30 seconds, are the best sound bites and that’s the one thing I learned; it’s worth it to spend the entire day with someone just to get that 30 second clip. I only saw him one time after the interview and he remembered me but I don’t think he ever saw the film.
In addition to David Hess you are talking to some people with a staggering amount of film knowledge. People like John Landis, Joe Dante, just real professors on the history of film. Did you ever get intimidated in these conversations?
Of course. I mean I think it all is but it doesn’t dissuade me from jumping in. It’s people like Joe that make you want to learn more. That was sort of the spirit I wanted to have while we were making AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE. I didn’t want to pop the cherry on what grindhouse was, I wanted people to see a bunch of film clips and want to go watch more movies.
The mention of Dante is a good transition to your new project which involves Dante regular and star of 175 soon to be 176 films, Mr. Dick Miller. Tell us about the project and how that was born.
I wish I could say it was all my idea but it wasn’t. It was actually pitched to me by a German company that I work for. It was for a German DVD release of WAR OF THE SATTELITES (1958), long story short the rights owners don’t have the license for the German language track and so the release was delayed. We had already shot all these interviews and I sort of took that as something good because with each interview I shot it kept getting bigger and better anyway. We have a lot of interviews done, we want to do more and we launched this Kickstarter campaign to get it made.
He’s been making movies since 1955 and his last film credit was 2009, is there one time period that is going to get more coverage than the other?
I am not sure, it’s kind of impossible to know. I do feel that everything you could say about Roger Corman has kind of been said. The 50s and 60s stuff might go quick but I am really attracted to what I consider to be the second phase of Dick’s career. He stopped working for a little while because Roger quit making movies to start New World Pictures and then Roger gave jobs to four buddies: Jonathan Kaplan, Allan Arkush, Jon Davison, and Joe Dante. They were all were east coast kids and they grew up loving Roger’s movies and when they had their chance to make their own movies for Roger they tugged on their boss’s shirt and said “we want to cast Dick Miller” and they gave Dick a second phase of his career. I think it was 1971, he didn’t do a single thing. So it was actually with NIGHT CALL NURSES directed by Jonathan Kaplan, co-written by Jon Davison, and even Julie Corman getting into the mix that they started to cast Dick regularly. He was the only major reoccurring character for New World Pictures. There were other guys who had little starring roles but they weren’t memorable. Dick was the guy, there’s something about him. He is a character actor star with a distinct voice, acting style, a distinct wardrobe. We are going to concentrate on his work with those four directors and then the third phase of his career which is the second phase of the other careers when they all started making studio films outside of Corman which trickled into Spielberg casting him, Tarantino casting him, stuff like that. Also all of the television work which is just massive.
Who are some of the other people you are trying to line up for the film besides Joe, Jonathan, Allan, and Jon?
Well I guess I don’t want to say because of bad juju. The list is there though; if you look at the films he’s made and who he’s worked with we want to talk to the same people you would want to hear from. We want who you guys want.
Is there a performance of his that kind of sticks out in your head as the definitive Dick Miller performance?
Probably BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959). I can’t think of any other role in a movie like that. An outsider who wants to be an insider who’s a nerd who accidently kills people but it gives him popularity with a certain crowd, he’s a reluctant monster, sympathetic but not scary. Dick’s a good looking guy; he was not an unattractive fella. So to me it’s BUCKET OF BLOOD, just the fact that the Walter Paisley moniker stayed with him for the next 30 years. That was a big thing as well when I realized there was an in-joke with him. Why was this character kept popping up all over the place? What’s going on here? It made people go back and do research and do it the hard way without Google. You had to read a book or go to someone with higher knowledge than you. That to me is what is so unique about Dick.
I just saw the video before our interview with Dick taking you on a tour of his office. I knew he wanted to be a writer but I didn’t realize he was such a prolific artist when it comes to drawing.
Dick comes from this old vanguard of filmmakers or film actors or film craftsman who don’t talk about their work; they just do it. They’re not judged by how they promote their stuff, their judged by the work they created and then they move on. Howard Hawkes was that way, Sam Fuller was that way, and a lot of the old school guys don’t feel like they have to talk about their stuff. In this information obsessed age we want them to talk about it. The fact that Dick agreed to do this is amazing. He didn’t even want to put the pictures up that he drew on the wall, his wife wanted him to do that, so it’s even hard to talk about his art work on camera because… he just did it… what do you want to know? So the fact that he’s doing more and helping us the way that he is, is pretty unique.
Follow the progress of THAT GUY DICK MILLER and make your donations here.
Follow Dick Miller on Twitter here.
Follow director Elijah Drenner on Twitter here., but be warned that he tweets about as often as Chris Christie drinks a slim-fast.
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