I was the Robin Hood of forbidden videos. It was a mission that came naturally to a kid whose mom had a strict ban on R-rated titles. Walk the aisles, find the forbidden fruit, open backpack, insert VHS, close backpack, exit store. The titles were always returned the next day, in part because the act of riding my bike down to the video store made me feel cool, but also because I just wasn’t into stealing shit. There were two exceptions. Two films that had a profound impact on my love of a particular type of cinema: TAXI DRIVER and VIGILANTE. Scorcese and Lustig. Those two directors remain cinematic heroes, so it was a fucking thrill beyond words to speak to one of them.
Mr. William Lustig._______________________
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: DG likes to start at the beginning. What was the first film you saw that changed your life?
WILLIAM (BILL) LUSTIG: GOLDFINGER. When I saw that movie, it just… boy, it really had a profound impact on me. I couldn’t have been more than ten. My mother took me to go see it and I just thought WOW, James Bond is the greatest and I was a James Bond fanatic from then on, but when Roger Moore took over I, uh… yuck…
DG: You checked out at that point, huh?
BL: Yeah, he just didn’t do it for me. I had seen THUNDERBALL seven times within a period of two weeks.
DG: So you just kind of camped out at the theater for a few weeks and got your Bond fix.
BL: Oh, it was great, it was great. But yeah those were the films. Later I became a World War II film fanatic, films like: DIRTY DOZEN, WHERE EAGLES DARE, KELLY’S HEROES – I loved those. Then, in the late sixties, Hollywood started putting out films that really were like these transcendent films of their genres. Films like: BONNIE & CLYDE, BULLITT, THE WILD BUNCH – films that were really amazing. Those are the ones that made me really want to be a director.
DG: What was the note that they were hitting with you? Those are all really visceral films with very intense stories, what struck you about those?
BL: Well, you know what’s interesting? I recently showed somebody about half my age BONNIE & CLYDE, and that movie still resonates as something special, even to people who don’t have the historical context to put it in. There was just something amazing about that group of movies that came out in that period of the late 60’s and early 70’s, and even the late 70’s. It was just such an amazing time when Hollywood was putting out movies that you actually wanted to go see. There was a period of time prior to that when all they were making was Julie Andrews musicals. I mean, they had Clint Eastwood singing in a western, and then all of a sudden they got their shit together and started making some great films.
DG: Oh man, I agree with you 100%. You know the tagline for Dailygrindhouse.com is “tough films for the rough crowd.” Not only does that give us license to talk about a wide array of films and film experiences, but it is kind of a nod to a style of filmmaking that was so prevalent in the time period you mentioned. People weren’t afraid to take chances. They didn’t hesitate to push you to the edge, and it’s about as far south from today’s philosophy of filmmaking as you can get which is just sanitized bullshit.
BL: Well, they temporarily gave up on their old formulas and the inmates took over the asylum. You had these hungry new filmmakers who were breaking all the rules, and really came up with some amazing films, and I was invigorated creatively by that. Then of course you had the movies coming out of Europe like the Sergio Leone films, the Dario Argento films. I just can’t even begin to tell you how thrilling it was to see those in the theaters. You know, I know it wasn’t just a point in time, because when you show these films to people from your generation, they still get excited.
DG: Absolutely, you could watch all of those on a loop and they still have a lot of force behind them. One of your early gigs in film was from that time period: you were an Apprentice Editor on DEATH WISH. Can you walk us through what that experience was like, and maybe what that film looked like before it came into the editing process?
BL: You know, when you see dailies, you don’t watch the movie. You’re listening for the slates and marking it up and looking at it in a particular scope. So I didn’t really get to see the movie until it came out. But, going back to that kind of golden period of filmmaking, there was a gold-rush after the movie DEEP THROAT where there was a surge in independent production. Because they were being made for theaters. They were the same technologically as an independent film, or even in some cases a big Hollywood film. So once you got locked into those film crews, you sort of migrated from film to film, whether it was an adult film or a low budget action film. They all kind of moved as one and never really segregated and that was my school, really.
Now, when it comes to DEATH WISH, how I got involved is a little complex. My uncle is Jake Lamotta, RAGING BULL, and my uncle’s best friend became a mentor to me in the film business, and he was the one trying to produce RAGING BULL in the late 60’s early 70’s. And at one time, RAGING BULL was set up to be produced by Dino De Laurentiis. So this gentleman, Peter Savage, had an office inside De Laurentiis’ office, and his partner on RAGING BULL was a gentleman named Ralph Serpe, and he gave me really my first production gig on ACROSS 110TH STREET.
DG: Holy shit, I didn’t know you worked on that. We love that flick.
BL: Yeah, and because of Pete Savage ,I was able to hang out a lot in the De Laurentiis office, and it kind of went on from there. In fact, Pete was instrumental in getting Michael Winter access to the subway in the famous scene in DEATH WISH, where Charles Bronson shoots the muggers in the subway. So it really was one of those things where people who knew people knew people, you know? A black bag deal is what they called it.
DG: Man, I know the wrong the people, but yeah.
BL: (Laughs) Anyway, because of Pete’s association, I was able to get gigs on different films that De Laurentiis was working on at the time. Another film was CRAZY JOE, and there were a few others. I would go for a day here and a day there. I did a little on the pre-production of the movie MANDINGO. They were doing some location scouting in Louisiana, and I was sort of manning the offices. But, I had no creative impact on these, but it was just great to be on the peripheral of these films which are now somewhat classics.
DG: Wow, so that was really like the best kind of film school you could be at.
BL: I was at film school while watching history being made, and you know something? I knew these films were special. That’s the funny thing. I knew they were special. It didn’t surprise me when I saw DEATH WISH and watched it become so influential to the action genre, not the least of which my film VIGILANTE, which was obviously inspired by DEATH WISH, but you knew they had something to them. It’s just so rare now, you go to a movie and see something that has that kind of “specialness” to it.
DG: Can you remember the last time you went to a theater and a saw film that you could say had an impact on you?
BL: Well, it’s kind of interesting because the filmmaker is a friend of mine who was inspired by some of my films and the films we were just talking about. It’s a great film that’s opening in September and it’s called DRIVE.
DG: Yeah, Nicholas Winding Refn.
BL: Yes, exactly. He’s a really good filmmaker, and I met when he – well, it’s funny, ’cause I saw the film in London. It hadn’t been released in the states yet and a year later I get a call from Copenhagen about some filmmaker who wants to license clips from MANIAC and VIGILANTE for a film he’s working on, and it turns out to be Nick. He was surprised that I had seen his movie, and it’s a really good friendship that lasts to this day.
DG: That was one trailer that really was – I mean, I can’t tell you the last time I have been this excited for a film. His films from PUSHER to BRONSON are just so tough and so unique. You can see the influences in the trailer for DRIVE; it has some of Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER, it has some of Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY.
BL: Yeah, it does. It has all of those, but it really has his own personality more than anything. Yes, it has influences, the ones you mentioned, and I could even name a few more. Before he started filming, I gave Nick a movie called THE OUTFIT.
DG: Yeah, Robert Duvall and Karen Black.
BL: Yeah, and I would say there is a little bit of all those, but it’s not a copy of those. Nick made a genre film and really made it fresh and alive. It’s an absolutely a remarkable lm.
DG: He’s already one of those directors that without hesitation you watch his stuff, and I can’t help but imagine what this film is going to do for him if it’s as good as people are saying it is.
BL: I can tell you, there is nothing in his resume that is going to prepare you for the impact of this film. It’s really an amazing genre movie.
DG: We could easily spend a good chunk of time walking through your films, which have left a tremendous impression on the DG crew. One that stands out though is VIGILANTE. I think it’s one of your more visceral films. Can you take us through that film a little bit?
BL: Well, simply put, with that film I was trying to make an urban spaghetti western. That was my thought. I wanted to take the subject matter that was popular at the time – which was vigilantism – and give it the feel of a spaghetti western. It’s really a film I love.
DG: One of the reasons that film worked so well for me was the performance of Robert Forster. I think the pain he was able to communicate with his character was a little more relateable I guess than Bronson’s was, and that was probably because I think Forster was a better actor. I was talking to a buddy about VIGILANTE the other day and I told him Forster is like a more intelligent version of Paul Kersey (Bronson’s character in DEATH WISH).
BL: Well, personally, I think Bob is a great actor, and I am glad he got the chance to really shine in JACKIE BROWN. Bob has a body of work that is just amazing. The movie ALLIGATOR is one of the more underrated films I can think of, and he’s just so great in it. He’s just a great actor.
Bronson had an enigma though that worked. I am a big Bronson fan and I think he gets sold short sometimes on his acting. I mean, when you see Jason Statham doing THE MECHANIC, and you think of how Bronson was in THE MECHANIC, it’s just hard to imagine. Bronson was just so great and created this amazing character, and Jason Statham was just doing that character essentially.
DG: The car chase in VIGILANTE is one of my all-time favorites, in part because it’s one of the few chases where the hunter loses the prey for an extended period. Forster never panics behind the wheel. He just becomes even more intense. I mean honestly, I don’t know of a lot of people that could sell that idea. When it comes to car chases, you want to see some bump and grind and near misses and that kind of thing, but VIGILANTE I guess feels real. It just feels like a real chase. How did you set that up?
BL: Well, we didn’t have the money to make a full on Hollywood car chase with all the stunt teams. So what I tried to do instead was make, how can I put it? I guess make it emotional. In other words, rather than be about the cars and the car crashes and jumps and stunts and things like that, trying to make it almost like they were on horseback and they were going through the woods. I mean there’s a moment when Bob Forster kind of zeros in on the bad guy, and he’s up on the hill – which is a bridge – and he comes over it and the car is airborne for a moment. In my mind, I was thinking about the horse coming over the hill. That’s what was in my mind. At which point it becomes even more exciting because he uses the car to chase down the bad guy on foot.
DG: It seems like each one of your films now has its own fan base, but only one spawned its own franchise and that’s MANIAC COP. One thing I have always been curious about is that you’ve said MANIAC COP had to go through some compromises, and MANIAC COP 2 is the one film you’ve done where you had to compromise the least. Can you break that down for us a little more?
BL: Well, I think what I was talking about was in terms of working with a limited budget, and we had some short cuts that we did, but nothing that was detrimental to the overall movie. MANIAC COP 2, though, I had a lot more money I was able to work with, so I was able to do more and make more of the movie I had in my mind. Those movies to me were kind of noir comic books, and MANIAC COP 2 was able to go more in that direction.
DG: So Blue Underground is a company all of our readers are familiar with. Your label releases the films from that tough time period that we talked about a little bit ago, when films delivered experiences. No matter who you talk to about Blue Underground, we all have our own favorites, but what’s the one title you’ve found that you’re the most proud of?
BL: Well, it’s funny because the films that I am most proud of are the ones that weren’t necessarily our most successful ones – or maybe not our higher profile ones – you know we put out a movie called LA SCORTA, which is one of the greatest films in recent years. It’s an Italian movie about bodyguards guarding the Italian judges in Sicily, and it’s just an exciting balls-to-the-wall thriller. On it, we have a wonderful featurette with all the principals involved in that movie. So that’s one that I am very proud of.
I also love the move REVOLVER. I guess I am partial to the Italian directors and Italian thrillers. They just have a soft spot with me. I am also really happy that I’ve been able to bring out the Dario Argento films and give them the proper releases they’ve deserved.
DG: Yeah, you guys have really saved those movies and done some great work with those transfers.
BL: The transfer that’s really going to blow people away is ZOMBIE. The transfer we did on that is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s finally the ultimate edition of ZOMBIE.
DG: I know for me, ZOMBIE and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY are two of the more anticipated titles coming to Blu-ray.
BL: Yeah, HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is another one that has a really good transfer. I am working on both of those now, actually, and I am really pleased with how those turned out. They’ve really been without compromise and they both look wonderful and have new extras on them. People can buy with confidence, I’ll tell you that.
DG: Well, that’s one thing that we dig the hell out of when it comes to Blue Underground. It’s like those classic record labels from the 50’s, where you knew even if you hadn’t heard the tune you knew it was going to be good, and Blue Underground is the same way. Even if you have never heard of the flick, if it’s on the Blue Underground label, it’s going to be fucking good.
BL: Well, I’m happy to hear that, because my intent was to create a label where people would be more apt to buy a film because it’s on my label. That’s why I take so seriously the films that I acquire. I really only want to put out films that I’m happy with.
DG: One film that people wanted me to ask about was SUSPIRIA. I think I kind of know the answer to this, but it’s a reader question, so I want to make sure to get to it. Any plans to get that out on Blu?
BL: No, my rights are expiring on that picture, and so it’s unlikely. The whole thing is kind of complicated. It’s a complicated movie in its ownership.
DG: So speaking of complicated ownership, or back stories in this case, I wanted to ask you about TRUE ROMANCE. Tarantino said on the commentary track for that film that he had given you the script to look at, but when Tony Scott showed an interest he took it over to him and then it eventually got snatched up. Can you talk a little about how that played out?
BL: Well, I had far more than just interest in it. I had acquired the script and done some re-writes with Roger Avery, and I was in active pre-production on the film.
DG: Oh wow, I didn’t realize that.
BL: Yeah, and then when Tony Scott showed interest, I was basically paid off and settled and left the production.
DG: That doesn’t sound like the best experience.
BL: No, it wasn’t. It was painful.
DG: Did any of your re-writes make it into the final film?
BL: Oh absolutely. One of them I was really surprised at actually, because I thought it was terrible (laughs).
DG: Which scene is that?
BL: What happened was in Quentin’s script, Clarence dies in the end and it really works. It’s very poignant and inevitable. It just feels right for the movie. In trying to obtain financing for the film, though, there was some backlash about the principal character dying, as there always is with things like that. So Roger and I – I will never forget, it was in my living room – came up with a really sappy ending and slapped it on the script, with the intent that we may or may not use it, but we wanted it there for the purpose of obtaining financing, and it made it into the movie word for word, and I was shocked.
I thought when Tony Scott came aboard he would have had the power to change it. I imagine he had to have gone back and looked at the earlier drafts of the script and would have thrown out what we did because it was total garbage, but he kept it word for word with them having the kid on the beach and all that. It was just awful.
DG: Yeah man, I can’t stand that ending. The ending like Tony Scott had in REVENGE is how that should have gone down.
BL: The original ending was like A BETTER TOMORROW. That was what I wanted to shoot. That was the one in Quentin’s script. But the ending they kept in just turned into kind of a jokey thing, I mean even the shoot-out. We had a very specific idea on how we wanted to do the shoot-out. It just was a different movie when I had it. The one Tony Scott ended up doing was an MTV movie. The one I wanted to do was more of a Don Siegel by way of John Woo, before John Woo became more well known.
DG: Do you think you’re ever going to get around to making a film like that?
BL: We’ll see. You never know. It’s difficult right now to get independent films made. It’s just really tough.
DG: Is that because those decisions are being made by accountants who are looking at the numbers versus the story?
BL: It’s a little bit of that, but it’s also I would say because of so much pirating. Movies like music have lost their value, and that’s a real problem. So, how do you raise money to make a movie if, God forbid, the master tapes get out and then it’s gone and on the Internet? It’s a real serious problem. I don’t know why anybody would make a movie unless you have a big studio with some amazing security on your films.
DG: Back in 2007 you said you were going to give Blue Underground one more year as CEO, and then return to filmmaking. Is that why you haven’t done that yet?
BL: Partially, these are all factors that make it more difficult to raise money. It all started with Napster. As soon as music started to lose its value, it spread to film. Can you tell me a movie right now that you cannot see on the Internet? I bet you DRIVE is available if you look for it. It’s just sad.
DG: How do we get out of that rut?
BL: That’s the thing, I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle once it’s out. You have generations now who don’t think they have an obligation to pay for music. That copyrights don’t have any value. So if they don’t think they’re doing anything illegal, what do you do? It’s just that simple. Technology has kind of eaten itself. I could go on about this but it’s just really sad.
DG: I think it’s an important issue that people need to hear, especially coming from someone like you, who not only distributes DVD’s but also has an extensive history in the industry. I guess all we can do as fans is not support or condone that kind of activity, support companies like Blue Underground with our dollars, and support the films we want to see by going and seeing those in the theater.
BL: Yes, definitely, but also I would say that it’s easier said than done. You know the gym I go to is frequented by people from the industry, and they’ll occasionally hand me a DVD that hasn’t come out in theaters yet. You know these are illegal DVD’s and they’re not even giving it a thought. So, if people in the industry aren’t being vigilant, why should I expect your readers to be? But (laughs) I don’t want to end this on a down note.
DG: No, not at all. I think again, it’s an important point and I think your opinion and experience carries a lot of weight. Anything else you want the readers to know about before roll the credits?
BL: Yeah, you already mentioned ZOMBIE and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. Also next month we have 10TH VICTIM, which was a lot of the inspiration for what was in AUSTIN POWERS. That stars Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andres. It has a beautiful high-definition transfer that was made from the original negative. Then, we have TORSO coming out, which a lot of people consider to be one the best non-Argento giallos. That one, if there is even the slightest opportunity for a girl to be undressed, then she’s undressed. It’s almost to the point of being comical. It’s the ultimate kind of voyeur type of film.
DG: Some Billy Bagg type stuff?
BL: (Laughs) Yeah, but the girls are much prettier.
DG: Real quick before you go: We got news this morning that there’s going to be a MANIAC remake. What can you tell us about that?
BL: It starts shooting next month. It’s kind of interesting to have made a movie that thirty years later someone is shooting a remake of. It’s kind of bizarre. We just never anticipated that. It’s an odd feeling; it’s really an odd feeling. I haven’t tried to involve myself in the project, because it’s something that is just strange and one day I’ll be able to articulate that.
DG: And do you own that movie? Did you have the ability to say yes you can or no you can’t make that?
BL: I do, I own that along with Andrew Garroni, and they had to license it from us, but it’s going to be interesting to see.
DG: Well Bill, we missed you the last time you were out here in Portland at the Hollywood Theatre with MANIAC.
BL: I love Portland. It’s absolutely one of my favorite cities. ZOMBIE is actually playing there on October 21st at the Hollywood Theatre.
DG: Next time you’re here, the beer’s on us.
BL: I look forward to it. Thanks for getting a hold of me.
SEE YOU ON FORTY DEUCE,
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