|Rick Popko, left and Dan West, right.|
Sweetback (SB): I'm embarrassed to admit that I was a bit late to the 4321 Films party. I first heard about RETARDEAD in the pages of Steven Puchalski's SHOCK CINEMA magazine (which gets a nice nod in the film), and even from their brief review I knew it was something I had to track down.
Dan West (DW): Shock Cinema is a great magazine that I have read for years and it was a pretty big thrill to get such a nice nod in that issue.
SB: At the risk of being tiresome, let's go back to the beginning. How did you - Rick and Dan - meet, and what were some of your formative influences growing up? I'm guessing H.G. Lewis and Punk Rock have to fit in there somewhere.
DW: We met in High School back in late 1984 thanks to having the same art class and a mutual love of the make-up work of Tom Savini. Rick had Savini's book on his film make-up, “Grand Illusions,” and was reading it in the class. I LOVED that book. It was love at first sight I suppose. We have been tormenting each other ever since. I'm the guilty party when it comes to the H.G. Lewis stuff. I love all of those cinematic train wrecks that he created with Dave Friedman and his other collaborators. His films are either wonderfully horrible or horribly wonderful, I can't figure out which. As far as punk rock goes, we both love the Sex Pistols and I was a big Dead Kennedy's fan. We like "that punk rock", for sure.
SB: Speaking of punk, there's very much a DIY component to your films - along with a healthy snubbing of "appropriate" subject matter. Was the freedom of low-budget film-making something that always appealed to you?
DW: Not at first. Like anyone young and inexperienced we wanted to try to work within the studio system and really tried to get a foot in the door for a while, primarily as screenwriters. We did end up writing an un-produced screenplay for Francis Coppola's Commercial Pictures way back in the late eighties. He had a sort of Roger Corman-type production company going for a while to produce a few low-budget genre films. That, to this day, is the only time that we have been paid any money as screenwriters. But after a lot of disappointment we got wise and just began to wonder why we were doing all of that work for nothing. It was just frustration after frustration. Finally we wised up. Now I watch these documentaries of screenwriters whining about how difficult it is to work in the studio system, and I just have to laugh and wonder why, if they love film so much and have such great tales to tell, why don't they just put together something low-budget and independent that they could have control over? It's a pain in the ass for sure, but if you love it, then what's the problem? Get off your ass and make something yourself instead of bitching about the goddamn studio system. In this day and age, with the technology available to anyone, you really have no excuse than to, as Lloyd Kaufman puts it, "Make your own damn movie".
SB: Now, you both began making short films and sketches with THE SOMETHING SPECIALS - videos available over at Funny or Die - back in the 90s. Even some of these older shorts show off your comedic sensibilities - as well as a healthy devotion to gore. Did these shorts provide your "film school", or did either of you have specific training?
DW: Those sketches are probably much older than that, actually. We started shooting sketch comedy and shorts almost from the moment we met. We have literally hours of that kind of material that we filmed over the last few decades. We were the types that have both had cameras in our hands since we were kids, so we learned by doing and doing and doing. Although Rick did attend film classes in College and I think he might have a degree in some area of film.
SB: How do you two trade off on directing duties? Is there a lot of arguing, or have you developed a Coen Brothers-style sixth sense after working together for so many years?
DW: We used to fight like cats and dogs, but that was usually over the writing process that we go through. Directing these days has become really laid back and telepathic. There's always the occasional flair up, but over the years they have become more and more rare. We have a telepathy these days that comes through years and years of arguing and collaborating, and sometimes it can be uncanny the way we can read each other and the problems we might have with something.
SB: Was the idea that you were always going to transition from shorts into a feature length project? Where did the idea for MONSTURD come from?
DW: We always wanted to make features. I think we were both born filmmakers, for better or worse, and for whatever reasons that motivated each of us. There was never a set pattern or plan. You film and film and film. If you aren't filming, you are thinking of things to film later and then things to film after that. We're just wired that way. We both grew up wanting to make movies and well, you've seen the results. Thankfully in our case "one man's trash is another man's treasure." I mean, I love Herschell Gordon Lewis' films, as you've mentioned, so I suppose that speaks volumes about what strange things motivate me as a "director".
What really first motivated us to make MONSTURD began with a viewing of the film, JACK FROST, the horror film with the murderous snowman. We were really bemoaning our fate as screenwriters back then, and when we saw that movie something clicked. At first it was out of frustration (now I must mention here that I quite like the movie, JACK FROST and I'm not kidding when I say this. I think it's very funny and very entertaining in a great sarcastic way, but at the time it made us slightly angry) but that frustration later served us very very well as Rick can tell you.
Rick Popko (RP): Dan and I had just spent something like three or four years of our lives writing an epic action/comedy. There were points during that writing process that almost cost us our friendship. We thought it was so good that Hollywood HAD to take notice of us. We thought it was our golden ticket into magic land. Soon, however, the realities of trying to sell a script into Hollywood set in. A studio won’t read a script unless it’s submitted by an agent. And an agent won’t read your script until they’re interested in your 1-page query letter. I sent 40 query letters to different agencies in and around Hollywood (and included a self-addressed stamped envelope so they could send us a rejection back).
After two weeks, we got three rejections back. I then started doing follow-up calls to those agencies we hadn’t heard from. I spoke to agency and asked the receptionist, “How long does it take to hear back from a query letter,” to which she responded, “About two weeks.” When I asked, “What if it’s been longer than that?” She said, “Then we’re not interested.” I then added, “But I sent you a self-addressed stamped envelope.” And she shot back, “Look, if I had to send a self-addressed stamped envelope back to everyone who sends us a query letter, it would be a fulltime job for me, and, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time for that.” And then I snapped back, “Then what does a writer need to do to get their script read in this town?!” And she said, “You can either know someone we’re already representing or have someone attached to your project.”
We didn’t know anyone who was represented by an agent, so we tried to get attachment to the project. Dan and I cast the script and then proceeded to send copies out to those actor’s agents. In a couple of days, those scripts came right back to us with a note inside that said, “Sorry, we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.”
We were broken men at that point. To nurse our wounds we went to a local video store and rented JACK FROST. As I was watching it, I started to fume… “How is it Hollywood has no problem releasing a movie about a killer snowman, but won’t take the opportunity to consider our project?” I was outraged. When I left Dan’s house after the movie, I thought, “You like movies about killer snowmen, Hollywood? How about a move about a killer shit monster? Huh? Would you like that?” When I got home, I immediately penned the first 25 pages of the script, then called IT CAME FROM THE SEWER. I called Dan and pitched him the idea and added that we should write this thing as a joke and then send it to every studio in Hollywood. Dan thought I was crazy and said I needed to take a chill pill.
A few weeks later, when I was at CNET, I got my hands on a Canon GL1 miniDV camcorder for review. During my tests, I took it over to Dan’s house to do some test shots using the camera’s 30p mode. Dan saw the quality that that the camera produced and screamed, “Dude, that looks like film! We could make a movie with that thing!”
A few days later Dan called me and said, “You know that shit monster movie you were telling me about the other day?... I think we can do it.”
Long story short, I purchased the camera, we drafted a script and shot the thing over the course of a year… It took another year to edit the beast.
SB: For a low-budget film, MONSTURD is awfully ambitious. What were some of the ways you stretched the budget, and what sort of shooting schedule was there?
DW: It's wonderful whenever you hear someone call something like MONSTURD "awfully ambitious" because it is both "awful" as well as "ambitious". One of the great ways to stretch a budget is by not paying anyone but a composer and sound editor who wouldn't work for you any other way. The next is to find great locations that require little if any compensation for their production value, and the third way is to be a pair of DIY punk rock assholes and just run around stealing as many shots in as many ways that you can without getting arrested. (And yes, we did film our prison scenes at Alcatraz during a packed tour...a true feat of indie filmmaking). We had no idea how long it would take to shoot a feature film, so we weren't "restrained" by that idea. Shooting took as long as it took, and it took a long fucking time on that budget (but not as long as its sequel!). Looking back on MONSTURD, taking a year to get most of that thing shot seems like a miracle, considering how insane the storyline was, but we were much younger then. You'd hope to get quicker in your older years, but maybe we should just be less ambitious and start filming MY DINNER WITH ANDRE but with some gore, so we can just use two actors and one set and get it done in a week. (And I'm not kidding when I say this. I've certainly thought about that approach).
SB: RETARDEAD has much of the same cast as MONSTURD, and the quality of acting as a whole - including both of yourselves - is well above the usual level you see in films with such limited budgets. Did most of the cast come from the SOMETHING SPECIALS group, or did you have to cast outside of friends and family?
DW: Beth West, who played Agent Hannigan, was my wife at the time, so her casting was based on commitment as well as convenience, but Beth was always extremely punk rock and game for adventure, as was Paul Weiner who played Sheriff Duncan, who we recruited from an internet-based company we both worked at when we started the movie. We really didn't know Paul from Adam, but he ended up doing both films and was great for what we needed in that crazy sheriff role. He just seemed right for that part and so did Beth. Sure the acting is wooden or uneven or whatever you want to call it, but it's sarcastic, and no one was trying to win a fucking Oscar by playing a role in a shit monster movie or a movie about retarded zombies. We were just trying to be funny and tongue-in-cheek in a very sarcastic, dry way, as if these "bad actors" didn't know they were in such a ridiculous movie. Of course they were stiff. The dialogue was ridiculous and they were trying to keep from laughing while saying their intentionally stupid lines.
Many of the other actors, like Ken Dashner who played Professor Downing or Dan Burr who played Dr. Stern, had shot sketch comedy with us for many years prior to making the movies. Dan Ellis was a great discovery who was introduced to us by Dan Burr, and he ended up playing Dr. Waters. Ellis had aspirations to be a working actor and he was really quite good. We ended up fleshing out and expanding his part to give him more screen time. He's gone on to do a few movies in Canada and I hope he'll find his niche' as an actor because he's really quite good.
SB: Part of what makes RETARDEAD such a delightful experience is that it's packaged as a complete drive-in experience, complete with a great Concession Stand ad parody, and two terrific fake trailers for FRANKENSTEIN AND THE BLOODY BEAST OF GHASTLY TERROR and DRACULA VS JACK THE RIPPER. Talk a little about filming these shorts - and was the concept for RETARDEAD always meant to include all of this preamble?
DW: Those were sort of my babies, due to my fondness for art direction and costume design. They were afterthoughts, due to the production of RETARDEAD stretching on into infinity. We shot for years on that project. It just never seemed like it would end. We had endless changes in the script and really flew by the seats of our pants trying to put that thing together. As we were editing RETARDEAD, it became top mind that since I had collected period costumes for an aborted Dracula project that had been in the works years before
SB: I really have to ask. While MONSTURD certainly was willing to cross the line, RETARDEAD gleefully jumps over it. Was there any concern of backlash from the "special ed" content, or did you always figure that genre fans would be able to recognize and accept the humor for what it is?
DW: No, we were certainly apprehensive, if you can believe that, and at one point we did change the title of the movie to INFECDEAD, but really, RETARDEAD was a matter of committing to the bad taste factor from the start. That project became kind of an "all or nothing" commitment, if we were really going to submit ourselves to making that movie. The subject matter was always a factor in us thinking that maybe we were taking things too far and crossing a line that we shouldn't cross, but once you've invested a few years of your life into committing such stupidity and wild ideas into a feature film, then those concerns fall by the wayside. Sometimes in indie filmmaking, things really can become a case of "It's too late to turn back." That is the nature of the beast when you leap into an independent film.
RP: We had a conversation with Elite (our distributor for MONSTURD at the time). They were interested in having the first look at RETARDEAD when it was done. One day I got a call from our rep and he said, “Rick, I have to tell you, I floated your title (RETARDEAD) to a few of my sub distributors and they all told me you’re going to have a hard time moving a title with that name.” He then suggested we change the name of it.
As Dan mentioned, we toyed with the idea of changing the name to INFECDEAD, so that it wouldn’t prevent us from getting into Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other chain stores. But then it occurred to us, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other chain stores weren’t stocking MONSTURD, what makes us think they’d ever stock INFECDED? And so we said, “Screw it,” let the movie stand on its own.
With regards to backlash, we got some blowback on a few horror film site forums (mostly from people who hadn’t even seen the film), and Daily Grindhouse refused to run this interview, but that’s about it. It could be that people offended by the title stayed really quiet for fear that any kind of negative publicity would only fuel awareness of the movie.
SB: One of the things I love about low-budget cinema is the sense of community that surrounds it. For RETARDEAD, you guys had a plethora of second unit footage from around the country - and even had Brett Kelly (who I interviewed a few months back) to contribute some up here in Canada. It sounds like organizing it would be a logistical nightmare. How did you go about getting all of these people involved, and how the heck did you keep track of it all?
RP: When we set out to make RETARDEAD, we knew we had some pretty big shoes to fill, DAWN OF THE DEAD, of course being the biggest one. Dan and I said that if we were going to make a zombie movie we had to go all out for it. No cutting corners with regards to zombies and gore. I was a member of a few indie filmmaking Websites back in the day, and one day, while I was replying to one filmmaker’s thread it struck me. Everyone here wants to make movies. What if we could crowd source all of the zombie kill scenes? If we could get 50 filmmakers contributing a few short gory shots, it could look like an all out splatterfest if they were all edited together right. So I put the word out on those sites and sent them photos of what our zombies looked like so they could make sure theirs matched. In a matter of a couple of days I had 80 people who said they were on board.
“Holy shit,” I thought, “This is going to be crazy!” Out of those 80 people who jumped in, only 8 folks bothered to send something in. When I followed up with folks, I heard every excuse in the book why they haven’t sent anything. My father just died, I just moved, I don’t have any money, my friends flaked on me… Blah, blah, blah. We’re happy to say that all but one of the submissions made it into the final movie.
SB: It's also a film that gleefully revels in violence - particularly in the final twenty minutes. Did working with such a variety of FX - from the countless head shots, to gut-eating to a HELICOPTER EXPLOSION - provide any unique challenges?
DW: The effects were probably the driving force for us to actually make that movie! It's no exaggeration to say that our motivation for making a full-blown zombie movie on that level was to try and capture and emulate some of our love for George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, which was a seminal film for both of us and one of the reasons we chose to tackle a zombie movie in the first place. I certainly attempted to throw my hat into the ring as far as getting a gore effect on screen. Most of the really "eye-popping" effects were done by Ed Martinez, who was our "Tom Savini" on that show. He did the full-body tear in half and all of the other really stunning effects. I designed the ridiculous Monty Python-type Bum head decapitation/rip that showers the other bum in blood, and certain other silly things.
RP: One of the great things about being an independent filmmaker, is you can do anything you want in your movie. One day during production I told Dan that I felt the movie needed a car crash scene.
“Where do you want to put it in the movie,” he asked? I said, “I don’t know yet, but a car crash would add some real production value to the movie.” And Dan said, “I’ll tell you what. You figure out how you’re going to pull it off, and I’ll find a place we can insert it.” And so I set out get it done. I found an auto dismantling place in town and talked to the owner of the place. I asked if he would mind smashing a couple of junked cars together for us. In exchange we’d give his shop a credit in the movie and a copy of it when it was done. He said, “Sure thing. When do you want to do it?” It’s amazing what you can get if you just ask for it.
For the helicopter explosion, I filmed an actual helicopter taking off from a field, and then sent the footage to my friend Mark Pirro (another great, legendary independent filmmaker). Mark happened to be good friends with Glenn Campbell who was currently working at an animation house and sent the footage to him. Glenn, graciously took our footage into his computer and blew the helicopter out of the sky for us.
SB: I think my favorite FX moment is the simultaneous NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD trowel stabbing and DAWN OF THE DEAD machete head-slice, which is about as nerdily gleeful a reference to the Romero zombie films as one could hope for. Realizing that there's been a glut of low-budget zombie films in recent years, how did you hope to separate yours from the pack of Romero devotees?
DW: Goddamn! It's funny that you mention the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD trowel stab, because, until you mentioned that, it was "unintentional." The machete in the nurse’s head was purely intentional, of course, but the trowel reference/killing was not. That was a lucky coincidence. I'm thrilled that you point that out, actually. It's really iconic and was really not intentional.
SB: After the film was completed, what was the process? Did you submit to festivals, and what was the immediate response? Certainly the subject matter was an attention getter.
RP: No, we didn’t intentionally submit to a bunch of festivals. As far as I was concerned, the only reason to submit your film into a festival is to try and get someone interested in distributing it for you. We knew we were pretty much going to sign the movie with Brain Damage Films, so there was no point in submitting to festivals. Plus, we had really terrible luck submitting MONSTURD to festivals. Each festival entry cost around $40. We submitted MONSTURD to eight of them and didn’t get into any. Thanks to RETARDEAD’s word of mouth, however, we were actually approached by a few film festivals who wanted to screen it in their lineup. I told them, no problem as long as we don’t have to pay. We were invited to screen at Texas Frightmare Weekend (in Dallas, TX) and the Dead Channels Film Fest (in San Francisco). We also rented a local movie theater in San Francisco and had a 3-day world premiere there.
SB: And here's my biggest question: What's coming up next for you guys and 4321 Films? Any films or shorts in the pipeline?
RP: We’re currently in production on a new flick called CABERSLAY (pronounced like ”cabernet”). It’s about a winery in the Napa Valley that’s run by Satanists. The tagline is: You’re about to hit the bottom of the barrel. This flick’s going to be a little bit of a departure for us. Rather than doing pure exploitation off a gimmicky premise, we’re actually going to try and make a dark, weird, giallo-type horror flick with black comic undertones.
SB: If fans want to follow your current projects, or get copies of RETARDEAD or MONSTURD, what's the best way to do so?
RP: Our Website is www.4321films.com. You can also “Like” 4321 Films on Facebook. If you want to Friend either Dan or I on Facebook, please preface the request with an in-mail that mentions MONSTURD or RETARDEAD that way we know you’re not a spambot. Our movies are on Amazon and Netflix as well.
SB: Any other projects to plug?
DW: I am in the process of self-publishing three books: "I Hate You! And None of You Will Be Happy!", "Homemade Embalming Fluid (Expanded Edition), and the tentatively-titled, "And They All Died Screaming": (A horror/comedy novel). The details of which can be kept track of on my blog: Dan West Hates You! And None of You Will Be Happy!!
SB: Honestly, I love the work you guys are doing, and I could easily come up with a few dozen more questions; but for the sake of your sanity, there's just one more. If you each needed to give one piece of advice to young filmmakers looking to make a feature, what would it be?
RP: Always think about your production values. Just because you don’t have a budget doesn’t mean your movie has to look it. If your movie requires a medieval castle, go out and find a real one and then steal a bunch of shots in front of it (that’s what we did for the intro shot for the FRANKENSTEIN AND THE BLOODY BEAST OF GHASTLY TERROR trailer). Don’t just put a bunch of spray-painted cardboard up in your garage and call it done. In fact, the one thing that irks me the most about indie filmmakers today is how utterly cheap their movies look. Don’t rush your project for the sake of getting it done and having “bragging rights” that you’ve “made a movie.” Take your time to really frame your shots and work with your actors to get lines delivered right. And remember that it never hurts to ask for anything. The worst thing anyone can say to you is, “No.”
SB: Oh! And, of course, I have to ask one more question: How the heck did Jello Biafra end up in the film? And talk a little bit about how exciting having both H.G. Lewis and David Friedman be involved was for you both.
DW: We met Jello at a crazy MONSTURD screening in San Francisco. He came of his own free will, as a "fan." It was random and totally odd. I was a big Dead Kennedys Fan and knew who he was, so I was taken off guard at how much he liked the movie. Rick and Jello and I chatted for a few hours after the screening and could have blathered on forever. We got along really well and Jello implied that he'd done some acting and wouldn't be adverse to acting in some of our stuff, if we'd entertain that notion.
Well, fuck me, I was floored by that, being a fan of his, but I'm a decent actor and played it cool, but I was pretty damn thrilled by the idea. It worked out well, as you point out. I like the whole process of working with Jello Biafra because he didn't bat an eye at the crazy low-budget set we threw him in, and gleefully threw himself into saying that ridiculous dialog that we came him for the Mayor's press conference.
My association with Herschell Gordon Lewis dates back to the 1980's when I first started bugging him to collaborate on some kind of film project. Herschell was always accommodating and humored me for years in a gentlemanly manner as I pitched endless projects to him that never came to fruition. The narration he did for RetarDEAD and the David Friedman footage were the result of a project that Rick and I had in mind in which we would play them in an autobiographical comedy about their exploitation movie adventures. This never came to pass, much to my disappointment, but their narration efforts were not to be wasted. We had Herschell's narration recorded on audio tape and Dave Friedman's narration on camera that I had paid for to be used as second unit footage for the proposed project. When we came down to finalizing RETARDEAD we asked both of them for their permission to use those bits for the movie and they agreed.