Alex Winter is a punctual motherfucker. After learning that the long out-of-print FREAKED (1993) was going to be making a special appearance on Turner Classic Movies Underground, I thought I should check in with Winter to see what’s what. A time was set for 8:00pm and unlike Spinal Tap and a host of other misfits, he hit me with a call just as the clock hit 8. I was and am a huge fan of THE IDIOT BOX and FREAKED, it gave a voice to smart, if slightly psychotic, comedy. Winter’s career goes back well before that period however: DEATH WISH 3, THE LOST BOYS, and some flick called BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (shame that didn’t take off). So, enjoy the chat Bastards, and make sure to follow Alex on Twitter. Dig it!
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: So FREAKED is on as you know TMC this Friday, it’s out of print and unless you have a cool video store in your town it’s really hard to find and I think it’s going for like $70 used on Amazon something crazy like that.
ALEX WINTER: Yeah, pockets of time open and sometimes you can find someone selling it for a reasonable price but it’s kind of weird. Anchor Bay did an incredible job on that release but they made a very limited amount and then that was it.
Are there any plans for a re-release?
The main guys I know at Anchor Bay that I’ve talked to said they didn’t know. I just prod and pester them every once in a while.
You were born in London then moved to Missouri; obviously that’s where people tend to go after London.
Yeah, it’s pretty much your guaranteed pit-stop after London.
And then ended up in New York, when did you discover theatre?
My Mom and Dad were both dancers and my Mom actually had a dance company in the UK and then she got a job teaching at Washington University in St. Louis so that’s why we moved there. My Mom is from New York though so that’s why we moved back. I started acting though around 10 or 11. I started doing commercials and theatre in St. Louis and then in New York I did THE KING AND I, it was going on tour with Yul Brynner and they were looking for someone to finish out the stretch on Broadway and were looking for a kid who could fake a good English accent which having been raised in England I could do pretty well. So, from the age of 12 or 13 to 17 I was working on Broadway doing 8 shows a week and then quit and went to film school.
Was there one film you saw that made you think you wanted to get involved in movies and kind of move away from theatre?
Funny enough I wanted to make movies since as early as I can remember. I started making movies in my neighborhood when I was 8. I had a little film troupe of all my friends that I would write and direct movies with. I wanted to make movies because I had seen a lot of old movies that were being projected at my Mom’s university and that became my passion. I saw Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Hitchcock, I mean seeing those projected was amazing. I like theatre, I really do, but film has always kind of been my first interest.
You have really instinctual comedic timing, so it’s really interesting to hear you talk about seeing Keaton and Chaplin and I know you’re a pretty big Sellers fan as well, but to hear you talk about these great comedic minds… did that help kind of demonstrate those tools to you?
I love comedy. My influences as a kid were all very British humor: Python, The Goon Show, Sellers, Spike Milligan. That sort of really far out comedy is something that I just kind of sucked up like a vacuum.
Okay, enough chit-chat. Let’s get into the legendary Michael Winner. His films kind of range from okay to epic and then there is the stuff like DEATH WISH 3 that is just all kinds of crazy. How familiar were you with his films?
Well I was 19, I was at NYU film school and I took it as kind of like a summer job. It was uhhhh (laughs)… you know I have been doing these Onion AV Clubs where I present this film along with FREAKED and so a lot of memories have been rekindled. Michael Winner is either the most calculated guy I have ever met in the film industry or he’s just bananas and my guess is that it’s a combination of the two. He may just be very cunning and clever and a little perverse and sadistic. You know, he has a lot of money, he had a lot before he was directing so I guess he can afford to kind of be that way.
And when you have a lot of money you can film a rape scene for three or four days.
Yeah, that’s kind of it. I found a way to get out of that scene and that was good but a bad thing for the guy that took the role who wanted more screen time. I was young but I had been in the business for some time so I was unfazed and we all just started to kind of mess with Winner. We would improvise really ridiculous dialogue because nobody is going to care so I decided to just say stuff that is completely insane and will be a laugh-riot for anyone with half a brain. We screened the movie once in Times Square and people were laughing in the aisles and I felt very vindicated.
As you should.
So you had been on tour with Yul Brynner and now you’re working on a Charles Bronson film. Was that kind of intimidating to move to this giant production or did you look at the gig as just another job.
No, it’s never just another gig. It’s always amazing. Even to be in an admittedly sub-par movie like DEATH WISH 3, which whatever good qualities it has are kind of surreal and haven’t been carefully constructed by the auteur. So, it was a really fun and dazzling experience and there were a lot of people on his crew that had done some amazing work. I tend to, and I still do actually, I tend to suck up all the information from people because I was such a film geek since I was a little kid. Even on Winner’s movie there were guys there that had worked with Kubrick, guys that had worked with David Lean and Michael himself had worked with some pretty interesting people. So I would just show up and start picking brains all day and I did the same on LOST BOYS and I did the same thing on BILL AND TED; you know Roy Forge Smith who did production design on BILL AND TED did the production design on (MONTY PYTHON’S) LIFE OF BRIAN and (MONTY PYTHON’S) HOLY GRAIL and all that stuff. I was just a sponge really.
You asked Michael Winner if you could do your own stunts in DEATH WISH 3. Did you have a wish… of death?
I did that out of boredom and perversity. I have never done it before or since. I always have really good relationships with the stunt crew and I will get as physical as I can in a scene but I don’t want to do a stunt. I just didn’t have that much to do on DEATH WISH 3.
So LOST BOYS like a lot of your films has taken on a life of its own. It plays just as well now as it did when it premiered. Talk to us about the making of that?
Oh man, that was a blast. I just saw [Joel] Schumacher about a week or so ago. He was cutting up where I was working on my movie and we had a kibitz, a twenty year later kibitz, about how much fun that movie was. It was just unexpectedly fun. Again it was like film school. I was really broke, I didn’t think I was going to get the gig, I honestly didn’t think I was going to act again. After I left Broadway I just didn’t think I was going to ever act, I didn’t even consider DEATH WISH 3 as acting per se. I told that to Joel when I saw him. I wouldn’t have done any of those movies after LOST BOYS if it weren’t for him because he was the one saying look, you’re good, and you should do this. I just never put that much thought into it. Michael Chapman shot it, who I was just in awe of; I think I did that movie because he shot it. I just peppered him with questions about JAWS, RAGING BULL, and TAXI DRIVER. I am sure he hated my guts; I was like this annoying fan-boy clapping around at his heels.
I didn’t have a lot to do that movie so I had a lot of time to just stand around and watch what was going on which helped when I got to do FREAKED with Tom because there was so much money involved in that film and so much going on that I wouldn’t have had the ability to manage that if it wasn’t for LOST BOYS and watching how a big set worked, and watching the effects guys, I don’t think I went back to school fulltime after that, LOST BOYS was kind of like my senior project in a way. It’s not CITIZEN KANE but it was a really great film to be in. Nobody was up there ass you know? There wasn’t this “we’re making this cool teen movie” vibe, everybody was new.
Yeah it’s kind of funny that you mentioned that because one of the things I dig about that movie is that it never positions itself as a teen movie, it really just goes straight for the action and horror and just happens to have teens in it.
It really does. I was watching it in a bar a while ago and the sound was off, I was watching it from a corner not paying that much attention. It’s just so well-crafted cinematically. A lot of craftsmanship went into making that movie. I don’t want to oversell it, I mean it is what it is, but I think a lot of people put passion into it and that’s why its kind stood the test of time.
Obviously everything changed with BILL AND TED. Can you talk about the trajectory of that film and what happened after the release?
Well my directing partner Tom Stern had moved out to L.A. and we were really busy. I did BILL AND TED and then went to do a movie in Italy but BILL AND TED didn’t get released for like a year and a half. De Laurentiis, that wing of De Laurentiis went under and it had to be resold so, [Keanu] Reeves and I didn’t think it was going to be released. It really just died. We had become friends and he was acting in my short films but we didn’t think it was going anywhere. I had just gone off and started shooting videos and doing stuff with The Butthole Surfers. Then, the weekend it came out… it had been bought by this company called Nelson Entertainment which was this independent company so we didn’t know what kind of release it was going to have. I remember being down in Austin shooting this video with The Butthole Surfers, which was a precursor to FREAKED but we didn’t know that at the time, but I remember that weekend everything changed that day. Even being in Austin, nowhere near L.A. and going into a diner and people just freaking out and my life hasn’t changed since. I get recognized all day every day no matter where I am in the world.
So let’s get into the main event. You originally kind of conceived FREAKED as a film to star The Butthole Surfers, it was going to be this big giant behemoth rock and roll film. Can you use some other adjectives, possibly some verbs and nouns, to describe what the plot was at that time?
The film was like an extended music video for a music video magazine that was on VHS called Impact. The story was about this nerdy Dad with his wife and kid who are going through Texas and they get re-routed to get some BBQ and they end up at this ranch run by The Butthole Surfers and get murdered, turned into BBQ and eaten. You should check it out, it’s like this pulped out craziness.
Let me back up though; so we had done BILL AND TED and then I did THE IDIOT BOX for MTV and it was a big hit but they didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford to do it anymore so we decided to write something like an IDIOT BOX movie that would feature the same gang. So, we wrote this movie with Gibby Haynes (lead singer of The Butthole Surfers) about a family who stop off at a freak-show and get turned into freaks and that was the genesis of it. Hard pulp, low end, throwback to Cormanesque 1960s cult films. We just couldn’t get it sold; Sam Raimi even tried to help us at one point. It was just too far out, even for $200,000 it was too far out. So we kind of went back and thought about it, THE IDIOT BOX was popular, BILL AND TED is this huge hit, and so we decided fuck it; let’s pitch it as a mainstream comedy and we sold it as a pitch. We bent the Butthole story around slightly and pitched it. Now though we were like “oh shit, now we have to write this.” We had to take this hard R script and make it PG-13.
What kind of budget were you working with?
11 or 12 million, something like that… it was a lot of money for its time.
The effects are such in this film that I would think any kind of improvisation would be difficult but you have several actors in this thing that are more than capable of that, or am I wrong in assuming that?
You know, we weren’t overly rigid about the dialogue but we were specific. We didn’t want to do improve but if anybody had any good ideas or a direction to go we would talk about it.
Were any of the creatures written with the cast in mind? Tough to see Steve Guttenberg in the Mr. T role… or maybe it isn’t now that I say that.
Yeah for sure. We had places for a lot of people and ideas but the casting for that thing was nuts. We had people showing up in these homemade costumes and all kinds of crazy shit. It was a real trip to go through that process.
You were making this in a time of practical effects, probably one the last films to really employ that before CGI took over and honestly there is a lot of charm in the way they are used, do you think this film has a different life if it’s wall to wall CGI?
It wouldn’t have been any good. It was about an outsider from the old times. It was a comedy so we weren’t taking it seriously but it was about home-spun ingenuity, the things that made these types of shows compelling. You asked earlier about my influences and one of the things that (Tom) Stern and I connected on was Tod Browning’s FREAKS. I saw that when I was 8 or 9 tops, I was too young to see it but it had burned a hole in my retina. I was into James Whale, Browing’s other films, and Stern was approaching this from another perspective. He was into building stuff, making sure things looked real because I think we all knew we were on this precipice of everything going digital and it was all about to go away.
So FREAKED was very much about Elijah C. Skuggs getting mowed over by these corporate interests and this was right at the time when companies were being gobbled up by these huge corporations and the world was changing. It’s a long way of saying; CG would have been the opposite of what we wanted. It’s not that CG is bad; it’s just new and not tactile and doesn’t smell of anything old.
One of the main problems you would have had is that you would have no way to really relate to those characters.
Oh absolutely, the worm is the worm. We couldn’t just track him with tracking points on an SG machine and call it day. We had to figure out a practical way of getting the worm to move, it was not easy. It was fun, but it wasn’t easy.
This film has a number of standout scenes but obviously the hammer flashback is probably the most popular, although I dig every moment of the Rastafarian eyeballs, can you walk us through how you came up with the idea for a hammer to have a flashback?
I think each one of us have taken credit for that scene at different times. It’s my favorite joke in the movie and all I can tell you is that I do think that’s my joke. My perspective is that I remember seeing THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 and remember seeing they had the fucking balls to give the dog a flashback. Like a total anthropomorphic flashback. Like that’s the way dogs fucking think. So I thought it would be funny to find some inanimate object to give a flashback to.
I have always wondered what it’s like as a filmmaker to have your films playing on TCM is that pretty cool to see? They don’t just throw on average films so that has to be kind of an ego stroke right?
I am really, really proud of the movie and, this sounds like one of those lame athlete quotes, but I am just happy it’s being seen. It found its way and people continue to seek it out. This film had a really difficult life so I am glad it’s out there, its die hard in that way. I have been just happy that it found its way in the world.
Well, I mean that’s kind of a testament to how good the film is. Essentially what happened on the release was that you guys lost your cheerleader for the film inside the studio, right?
Yeah, that’s all it was. The studio had regime change which is common as dirt but what’s not common as dirt is a movie like this so it needs support and if your film is at a studio that has regime change it gets lost and you’re doomed. Fortunately for us it happened right at the end of post so it got completed and they made the mistake of giving us a print and Stern and I self-distributed that movie. We had one poster and carried the cans around from theatre to theatre. I did it in England, across the U.S. and then it got into festivals and kind of took off from there.
So let’s talk about some of the stuff you have in development now. How’s THE GATE 3D coming along?
That film is being funded from Canada and my producer who made the first one, is dealing with his financing and as soon as he has that wrapped up we’re good to go. I am hoping that it is ready at the back end of this year.
Are you guys going for a reboot?
Yeah, it’s in the spirit of the original. It’s not going to be one of those films that pretend the original never happened. You can’t make a Cormanesque kids movie today which is what I think that movie is, but you can in spirit and that’s kind of what we’re going for. It’s going to get weird but it still has to be marketable if you know what I mean. We have some cool stuff planned.
You also are working on a Napster documentary that sounds pretty cool. Can you talk a little about that?
It’s about the rise and fall of Napster, it’s a feature and will premiere at a festival this fall followed by a theatrical release and then land on VH1 as part of VH1 Rock-Docs. It’s about the digital revolution and this handful of kids that threw a rock in the water and changed the world. It really looks at how the world has changed and who’s embraced the change and who’s fighting it. Essentially the whole hand off from an era or epoch to another has been a mess. It’s about polarity and gives voice to both sides but it’s also about change and what that means.
What does the revolution mean to a band like Tool for instance who isn’t even available on iTunes at this point?
Well they’re going to have to adapt or risk becoming so compartmentalized and rarified that they aren’t even on the grid. I think about bands like Fugazi who did that kind of thing and did a lot of tape trading. The old model is over, it’s gone, DVDs, CDs, it’s just a whiff of something that’s dead.
SEE YOU ON FORTY DEUCE,
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