Buddy Giovinazzo Interview
From Staten Island to Berlin
Many horror fans who grew up with the grind house horror of the 1970s and then witnessed the slickening of the genre throughout the 1980s hold a special place in their hearts for Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (aka American Nightmare), a horror released in 1986 that was a throwback to the socially conscious horror films of the 1970s. Although marred by its miniscule budget and some amateurish acting in the smaller roles, Combat Shock is driven by the strong lead performance from Buddy Giovinazzo’s brother Ricky, as a psychically scarred Vietnam vet who is unable to adjust to the demands and responsibilities of civilian life. Buddy Giovinazzo had to wait ten years before making his sophomore feature, No Way Home (1996), where Giovinazzo had the opportunity to work with professional actors of real merit, Tim Roth, James Russo and Deborah Unger. Thematically, No Way Home deviates from the horror-landscape of Combat Shock but continues the theme of the psychological pressures of social adaptation, with Roth as an ex-con returning to his home town to pick up the pieces. James Russo returns in the lead of Giovinazzo’s next film, The Unscarred. Giovinazzo was invited to the Fantasia International Film festival to present his most recent film, Life is Hot in Crackdown, as well as a retro screening of a 16mm print of Combat Shock.
Life is Hot in Crackdown revisits the urban squalor of Combat Shock and concentrates on the interconnected lives of four sets of characters touched in varying ways by the cycle of drugs, poverty and violence. Crackdown eschews the bouts of surreal and graphic violence of Combat Shock in favor of a more realistic but no less affecting style. The impressive ensemble cast that make up the interconnecting sets of characters include 1) Manny (Victor Rasuk), a hard working Latino with a wife and young child who works two jobs; 2) Willy (Ridge Canipe), a ten year old boy, who lives in a Welfare hotel with his younger sister and their drug-addicted mother (Illeana Douglas) and her violent boyfriend (Edoardo Ballerini); 3) Marybeth (Kerry Washington), a pre-op transsexual working as a prostitute and her live-in lover/pimp, Benny (Desmond Harrington); 4) and a young, angry African-American street gang member Romeo (Evan Ross). One of the strengths of Crackdown is the writing, which makes heroes out of villains. Giovinazzo does not demonize his characters, or paint them as simplistic victims of their social environment. Their weaknesses humanize them and in the end we are touched by the ability of tarnished characters to rise above the squalor around them and produce genuine acts of compassion, sacrifice and love. In a sense there is more at stake in these mini-narratives than death, but the failure of humanity, and Giovinazzo loves his characters too much to let that happen.
Offscreen: My first question is on origins. Your name is Italian. My parents are also Italian, I was born in Canada, you were born in the US. I was wondering: where were your parents born?
Buddy Giovinazzo: My parents were born in New York, but my grandparents came from Calabria, Italy. They moved to America in 1929. They thought they were coming to a better life, it was during the Great Depression. They actually had less in America. In Calabria they lived on a farm, they had a big family, the kids worked the farm, so they were self-supporting. They made pretty much everything on the farm. My grandmother used to tell me, they made their own soda, toothpaste, but when they came to America it was right smack in the Great Depression. They worked hard. My grandfather opened a butcher shop, and built it up and it became a family store. When his kids became older they worked it. He carved out his own business and it became the American Dream.
Offscreen: Do you speak Italian?
BG: No I’m sorry to say I don’t. My grandparents wanted everyone to be American. Back then it wasn’t a good time to be an Italian immigrant, or an Irish immigrant, or German immigrant. So the idea was to acclimate. So my grandparents spoke to each other in Italian, but we spoke English. It was a shame because I spent a lot of time with them when I was a child. So I could have learned the language easily, without really trying, but they wanted everyone to be American.
Offscreen: Have you ever been to Italy?
BD: Yes I’ve been a few times but never to Calabria. I speak German now because of living in Germany, but I would have loved to have spoken Italian.
Offscreen: Well, it is never too late to learn!
BG: Yes that’s right.
Offscreen: So you’ve been in Germany for 10 years. Can you talk about how that came about, what led to you settling in Germany and what are some of the things that are keeping you there?
BG: Actually , I was living in LA after my second film, No Way Home, with Tim Roth, which was critically successful but not financially. It broke even. I was unable to keep working in LA because I didn’t have that financial pedigree. I was simply one of a million directors with a film under his belt. So after three years of that I was depressed. In LA the longer you are there without work, the harder it is to find work. It is almost like the clock is running. I had the chance to go to Berlin for a few months, to live for free and clear my head, so I did. And after I was there for a few weeks I just fell in love with the city. It really felt like NY to me in a way that LA was never in my eye. Berlin, although it was a completely foreign culture, in language, in everything, the minor details, going into a supermarket was a strange thing, because the things the Germans eat we would think, wow, wait a minute. To make a long story short, companies in Berlin were fans of this film I made that didn’t do well, but in Germany if they like a film, they like a film, they don’t ask if it made money. They know what they like. So I was offered a film, and then the combination of loving the city and not liking LA and having work, led to me staying. And it is ten years.
Offscreen: You made Unscarred there, which is the only film of yours I haven’t seen.
BG: Yes I made that for a German company and then in the following years I’ve been making films for German television, so I’ve made ten films. Basically one film a year.
Offscreen: Is it contract work?
BG: No, it is a different company every time. My films do well. I’ve worked in the American system, which is pretty much you create a family situation, work very closely with your actors, and tell a good story. And the German approach is more of a technical approach. The German films tend to look beautiful. They have all the toys, steadicam, crane, anything you could want. They are very slick. But they are cold. Their stories don’t make sense, and as an American we come less from a formal background and more from a narrative. Think of the old classic directors. They are not known for their visual style but for their storytelling. So when I do a German film and it makes no sense to me whatsoever I rewrite it. I say this scene makes no sense, we can’t have this guy going into this room because no guy on the planet earth would go into this room in this situation.
Offscreen: Do you write in English or is it translated.
BG: I’m a director for hire. The producers will have a script they want to develop. They’ll bring me in around the second or third draft and then I do a polish for the actors, because the actors in most German things is the last thing they think about.
Offscreen: I know it Italy after WW2 there was a tradition of shooting silent because of having many actors from different languages. Are your films shot silent?
BG: No. We shot with the Arriflex, Super-16, with the budgets roughly around 1 million to 1.5 million euro, so for me it isn’t bad. We have 23-26 days to shoot, so every time out is like doing a low budget feature. It is limiting in that they are crime films, so I sometimes feel boxed in. I have to do the murder, I have to do the investigation, it has to be explained at the end.
Offscreen: Did you watch other German films to get a handle on the German crime film?
BG: No, I didn’t watch much, just a few to see what the format was, but I didn’t really like them, to tell you the truth. They didn’t have good stories. With most of the films you will watch beautiful pictures, but not for 90 minutes! I want to be engaged.
Offscreen: Well, I won’t get to see these film.
BG: No, they are made strictly for German audiences.
Offscreen: Can you just talk a little bit about your past filmmaking experience? I know you did some teaching on Staten Island.
BG: Yes in Staten Island but I also taught for many years at the New York School of Visual Arts.
Offscreen: My cousin teaches at Wagner College on Staten Island, so I’ve been over there a few times.
BG: Oh yes, Wagner College, I know it.
Offscreen: This leads to a question about Combat Shock. Was it all shot on Staten Island?
BG: Yes it was.
Offscreen: Where was the jungle scenes shot?
BG: I grew up about 35 minutes from that college in a neighborhood called Port Richmond. So all the stuff of the guy walking the streets that was in Port Richmond, where I grew up. Staten Island. That is all Staten Island. All NYC so to speak. Some of it looks like New Jersey, some of it looks like Vietnam.
Offscreen: The way the film begins reminds me of many mondo films of the 1960s, 1970s, that begin with aerial shots establishing this of an Amazonian-type forest. Your opening does the trick. It is not Vietnam but…
BG: Hopefully it creates Vietnam of the mind, You suspend your disbelief. And you go there and it is not too cheap.
Offscreen: Is the city that we see in the film, is it so disenfranchised?
BG: It was back then, and then it came back in the 1990s, 2000s, and now it is going back in the opposite direction because of the horrible economy.
Offscreen: You did no set dressing at all?
BG: No the streets were they way you see them. We did of course dress the interiors. The apartment, but the streets were the way they were. When I was a kid, and this shows how old I am, there were no malls. There was a shopping strip, so the streets you see in Combat Shock and Crackdown that was essentially the shopping mall. When I was a kid it was packed with people, and that is where you went to shop on the weekends, there was the ice cream booths, restaurants.
Offscreen: There was more a sense of community in those days.
BG: Exactly. If you strip away the roof of the mall, and put that on the street, that is how my childhood was. So for me it was a bit harrowing to go back and see what has happened since the 1980s. And all these stores that have been there my whole childhood are closed up.
Offscreen: It seems every second store was closed down. Do you have a preference for the title of the film, Combat Shock or American Nightmare ?
BG: At this point I’m so used to Combat Shock, I’v e given up. At first I didn’t like Combat Shock. thought American Nightmare was what the film was about; it had a thematic connection with the character, but now it has a connection with the film. At this point Combat Shock has become a name, the same way that Reservoir Dogs is the name of that film although no one can say what Reservoir Dogs has to do with that film.
Offscreen: Straw Dogs is another one like that. What the heck does that title mean?
BG: So I’m comfortable with Combat Shock.
Offscreen: You’ve talked about the influence of Taxi Driver, and it does fit into this sub-genre of the scarred veteran coming back home, you have it in Rambo, Taxi Driver, this great little Canadian film called Deathdream, by Bob Clark, not sure if you’ve seen that.
BG: No I Haven’t.
Offscreen: And Blue Sunshine, another one, the Italian film Cannibal Apocalypse with John Saxon, they all come back and go crazy.
BG: I’ve seen the trailer for that not the film.
Offscreen: Have you seen any of these, other than Taxi Driver ?
BG: No, but I knew of the Saxon film. Well Taxi Driver and another influence on me was Eraserhead, probably as much for the sound design and the fact that nothing happens, just a guy walking through the streets. With Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver there is a narrative drive there, the script is much stronger. Was that Schrader, or Scorsese, Scorsese I think?
Offscreen: Schrader wrote the script, that was the first time they worked together, a lapsed Calvinist and a lapsed Catholic!
BG: That script was so incredible. That’s what Combat Shock didn’t have, so I was leaning narratively more toward Lynch in many areas.
Offscreen: I was going to ask you about the Sound Design. In a lot of the urban scenes there was this whirring sound, and when you cut to the domestic scenes it was not there. So what was your strategy in working out the sound design, the music? Who did the music?
BG: That was my brother, Ricky, he composed the music.
Offscreen: I thought you did.
BG: No it was Rick, my brother, who is a composer. David Lynch and Alan Splet, who was Lynch’s sound designer at that time were major influences. What I learned from them was that with most low budget films it is not the look but the sound that gives it away. It is the lack of sound design, or the lack of reality, or hyper reality, a lack of an atmosphere in the sound design. It is generally sound effects dialogue and music. And basically I knew that in my approach I wanted the sound design to oppressive. What I had in my mind was factory sounds. People doing hard jobs, jobs they hated. I wanted to have this aural oppression there for the character. And then when he goes home that is not there but he has this humidifier that is always blasting. So I was just trying to bombard the character with as much oppression as I could.
Offscreen: At some point during the chase scene you begin cutting back and forth between the urban chase and the domestic scene, and you begin to realize, hang on, the domestic scenes are more stifling and oppressive, let’s go back to the chase scene. There is no relief!
BG: Yes it is claustrophobic. And you also have the baby, which adds another oppressive sound.
Offscreen: Yes that is really out of Eraserhead.
Offscreen: Mitch Davis (programmer of Fantasia) before the film had mentioned the parallels in terms of what’s been happening today with the unpopular war, today’s economic downturn, so how do you think the film speaks to today’s viewer? Do you think it is as relevant today because of that connection?
BG: That remains to be seen. It depends on where we are going. We are definitely going closer to poverty. People don’t have money. They fear for their jobs. They don’t have security. I hope it doesn’t reach that level again. It is kind of an exaggerated reflection of that life 25 years ago. It is not like everyone is living like that, It looks like it, but we have always had the rich, the middle class, but today it looks like we only have the rich and the poor. We are losing the middle class.
Offscreen: The scene at the employment agency is sad because we always feel for these people in those positions because their jobs are predicated on the misery of other people. And there is this moment there where the employee had this kind of weird attitude, and he says something about having to take his coat off because he is too hot. It just seemed so off base. I was wondering whether maybe he too was a veteran and messed up!
BG: He was on drugs. It cuts from the guy with the coat hanger popping his vein, and pouring the heroine in himself, which I saw in New York once, I saw a junkie that had drunks with no needle. I saw him from my window down in the courtyard. And the worse thing for a junkie is to have the drug but no means of taking it. And this guy took out a wire and popped his vein, it is called skin popping, but this guy was so far gone. Anyway the point is it cuts from this guy taking drugs to this guy in this office taking pills. It opens on a close-up of two pills that he takes.
Offscreen: Oh, I thought he was taking aspirins or something for a headache.
BG: It is a joke of sorts. Because I then wrote my first book from that line: Life is Hot in Crackdown comes from that line, “Life is Hot Frankie.” It is a non sequitur. It has no meaning. Absurd.
Offscreen: Do you have any music training?
BG: Yes, I am a drummer. My brother was a bass player. My father was a musician and we had a music school at home. On the DVD of Combat Shock are my short films and music videos of bands I was in.
Offscreen: Is that the Troma DVD. Will it be a good transfer.
BG: Yes, and the sound design will be much better. My brother and I were studio musicians, we both read music. And then I took a film course in college, I had an open spot in my schedule, so I took the film course and it changed my life. I never knew the director planned everything, it was a complete mystery to me, although I grew up loving movies, watching horror films., I saw Mark of the Devil in the theatre when they were giving out puke bags.
Offscreen: Oh ya, that is with Udo Kier.
BG: I saw Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in 3-D when it came out. Outer Limits, I’m not sure of you had that in Canada.
Offscreen: Oh yes.
BG: That used to scare the shit out of me. With that voice telling you not to change the channel.
Offscreen: Did you watch Night Gallery?
BG: Oh yes.
Offscreen: Rod Serling’s intros were worth it alone.
BG: He was really creepy, and there were some really creepy episodes that still scare me to this day. I don’t mean the trilogy film, but the series. Creeped the hell out of me.
Offscreen: A tragic figure Serling.
Offscreen: You’re a musician, filmmaker, novelist, do you practice any other arts. Painting?
BG: No I don’t have any talent in painting. I’ve tried as a kid, but I have no talent in that regard. Before filmmaking I wanted to be an actor so I studied acting. And I realized fairly early on that I had no talent for that. I could not be comfortable in front of the camera, I could not let my nerves go, relax. And now it helps me as a director because when I am working with my actors I understand not only what they are doing and how hard it is but I can give them all that they need. I have great respect for anyone who can act, because it is a gift. It is not just a technique or a craft. I studied it for two years so I felt I gave it a shot, but had no talent whatsoever.
Offscreen: Well being a musician, novelist, and filmmaker is not bad.
BG: I don’t play music anymore. I haven’t played music for 12-15 years. I couldn’t do both. I was doing both badly.
Offscreen: Your brother has done admirably. He has scored most of your films?
BG: Not my German films. He scored my first four features. And he is busy in Hollywood.
Offscreen: Was Combat Shock shot silent?
BG: All the jungle stuff, the special effects stuff, the chase scenes was shot silent but the apartment stuff was shot CP-16 sync sound. The CP-16 was a terrible camera, it was so sensitive, it would break down, and malfunction, whereas the Bolex, which we used for the silent stuff, was like a tank. It was reliable. A great camera.
Offscreen: I can remember with Crackdown there is a lot of hand held stuff. I can’t remember, but is there a lot of hand-held in Combat Shock ?
BG: No, there is not much.
Offscreen: I didn’t think so. That is odd because you associate hand-held with the low budget, on the fly film style.
BG: You know the difference is that I had a lot more time on Combat Shock. No one was being paid, there was no schedule pressure, where I had a day schedule of having to make five scenes. We would go out with our friends. Some days we’d shoot for five hours, other days fourteen hours. Some days we would just should a scene. I was teaching at the time so I had access to all the equipment so there was no pressure to shoot as fast as you can or it would cost all this money. No salaries. The only cost I had was feeding the people and my lab costs. I had much more time for setting things up.
Offscreen: So is that where the choice for Life is Hot in Crackdown came, is it economical or aesthetic?
BG: It was both. At one time I was thinking of shooting Crackdown in a more elegant style, like Visconti. He would shoot these gritty, grimy stories in a very elegant way.
Offscreen: Like La Terra Trema. Orson Welles lamented, it was like peasants shot as vogue models!
BG: Funny you mention La Terra Trema because I had that in mind. But I knew once I saw the production team, on the first day of shooting, I said, fuck this, it is never going to happen. We don’t have the time or the equipment. And Life is Hot in Crackdown was a nightmare to shoot, with 45 actors, so many characters, 75 locations, on a million dollars and 23-24 day shoot.
Offscreen: That is a lot of locations. The structure is quite interesting in the film, but I’ll get to that later.
Offscreen: Just a few more questions on Combat Shock. The line where Frankie is on the phone with his Dad comes during a great scene because it really creates empathy for the character because when he calls he is down and out and is calling for help but then he begins to feel sorry for his dad, and forgives him. When his dad says, “I don’t want to go back.” And Frankie replies, “I go back every day.” It really establishes the connection to his war past. His father refers to his son as a dead person, meaning that he is no longer a part of his life, but it can also relate to Frankie’s psychological trauma. More a comment, but he is emotionally dead, a “dead person,” and if you ever get a chance to see Deathdream, by Bob Clark, you’ll see how that the film has the same theme, a soldier coming back from the Vietnam war dead, only it is literal, while it is figurative in Combat Shock.
BG: Bob Clark did Deathdream. Wow! I love Bob Clark.
Offscreen: It is one of the great Canadian horror films.
BG: The poor guy died recently with his son in a car crash.
Offscreen: Yes I know, a terrible tragedy.
BG: He has done comedy, horror, and one of the best Christmas films of all time, A Christmas Story.
Offscreen: Well, in Deathdream it is basically The Monkey’s Paw story, where a mother wishes her son back from the war, not knowing at that same moment he is shot dead, but the son does come back, alive, but an emotional shell, and he slowly deteriorates into a zombie. In your film it is figurative. He is not a zombie but he might as well be. They would make a good double bill together. But the point in the script where Frankie begins to get a God complex.
BG: Yes, the line, “I’ve now become God.”
Offscreen: And all the stuff with salvation through violence. Is that perhaps an influence of Schrader, Scorsese?
BG: That probably is. I don’t know if I was consciously thinking of that at that time. But I thought after all that these guys did to him, the one difference one minute before and one minute after is the gun. With this gun he is now God. He is untouchable, they can not harm him. He is the gun.
Offscreen: That is funny because that is the same as Romeo in Life is Hot in Crackdown, when he gets the gun, the way it empowers him. When his friend asks him to hold it he says that the gun was given to him, he is the chosen one! It adds a religious element to it.
BG: Yes that is right. I never even thought of that.
Offscreen: I didn’t really see any religious element in any of your other films, which is what made me think of Schrader.
BG: It meant God in terms of power, not as the Christian deity. There is no God in my films.
Offscreen: You are on your own buddy.
BG: Yes pretty much. Even in Crackdown, when Mary Beth is crying for her husband, and she says, God please if you are out there. And she is as desperate as anything. People only turn to God as the last hope, and even then, if you are out there.
Offscreen: One of the first things that Mitch said to me after the screening of Combat Shock is, “I can’t believe it, they laughed when the baby was shot.” Has that happened at other screenings, or are we just messed up here?
BG: It doesn’t happen all the time, but it has. But the baby is so annoying. The baby is one of the things in the film that I think doesn’t work completely, so it is such a relief when it dies that you just have to laugh. I have no problem with people laughing at that. Plus I have it dying in such a ridiculous way, I probably shouldn’t have had it spitting up blood, it doesn’t look real. When the wife spits up blood that is horrifying, we hear people groan. When my brother said to me, “it’s not supposed to be like this,” but that is my take on violence. When I see clean violence in movies that upsets me because I think that’s bullshit, that’s a lie, that’s not the truth.
Offscreen: Yes, when he shoots her and says, “die already….”
BG: Yes, people think it is supposed to be like on TV, you shoot her once, she dies, and she’s at peace. It is not like that at all. It is horrific. Whereas the baby is sort of comical.
Offscreen: It is the only bit of comic relief. The suicide at the end is effective. How did you get the blood to come spurting out on camera.
BG: That was not hard. There was a squib. With a tube running down his ear, and we had it pumping. By the end of the film if you are going with the character it is not so much technical but emotional.
Offscreen: And you really draw it out, the way he drinks the milk, sits at the table, against those ugly green walls.
Offscreen: Ok I’d like to switch to Life is Hot in Crackdown. There are obviously a lot of similarities, the drug problems, the children of prostitutes, the domestic spaces, etc.
BG: One of my best friends visited me on the first day of shoot and I had to laugh, he said, “you are making Combat Shock all over again.” I guess I am.
Offscreen: What is different is the narrative structure, what film theorist David Bordwell calls, “network narrative.” I’ll give you his definition: “several protagonists inhabiting distinct, but intermingling, story lines” [like Rick Altman’s work, 21 Grams, Babel, Magnolia, Crash, Traffic??, City of Hope??]. One of the films that I liken to your film a lot is John Sayles’ City of Hope.
BG: City of God ?
Offscreen: No, City of Hope, by John Sayles.
BG: Oh I haven’t seen it.
Offscreen: It is very similar, dealing with different sets of characters, inner cities. Were you influenced by these recent films that are doing ‘network narratives,” or was it more a result of the literary background that you adopted, the connected short stories?
BG: Well keep in mind, I wrote the book in 1991, finished it in 1992, published it in 1993. The book took the structure of Altman’s Short Cuts. I always thought of Crackdown as Shortcuts with drugs. When I had done the screenplay for Crackdown, these other films didn’t exist yet, in 1993, 1994, when I wrote the script. I was a huge fan of Nashville. We didn’t even have Shortcuts. That structure came about from the book: how do you tell a book of short stories? There is no through characters, so you have to fragment and try to tell them all simultaneously.
Offscreen: There are more characters in the novel?
BG: Yes there are eight, ten characters.
Offscreen: And you narrowed it down to five if you count the cops.
BG: Well, the cops are not in the book, which is interesting. I needed an outside view, I needed something that was going to be different than someone who was completely submerged in this world. They could be us so to speak. You have the older cop who has seen it all and the young cop. My favorite line from him is when they go into the room, sees the bloody fetus and the young cop says, “What is that?” That’s us. I’ve said things like that when I lived in NYC and saw shit in the street!
Offscreen: How did you decide which sets of characters to live in/out?
BG: It was tough. One of my favorite characters from the book is not in the film. Her story was told in flashback. She is going to see her john and then we get her memories of when she was a kid and you get all these episodes. That was one of my favorite stories.
Offscreen: I can see how that would not fit in, because of the flashback structure.
BG: Yes. I tried to pick a cross-section of stories, four separate lives, levels of life. The kids with the druggie parents, the transvestites, the gang and Manny and the bodega, who represents the American Dream, work hard all your life, do the right thing, be honest, and you succeed in the end, or not.
Offscreen: Yes, like when he looks at his dream house that he wants to buy.
Offscreen: I had a bit of fun going through the film and seeing how many scenes and screen-time each character or set of characters had, and came up with the following:
Romeo 15 scenes/25 minutes
Manny 11 scenes/18 minutes
Willy 10 scenes/21 minutes
Marybeth 15 scenes/26 minutes
Offscreen: How conscious where you of giving them equal time? Was it just a condition of the drama?
BG: Yes, it just happens. Romeo was not one of the bigger characters in the screenplay. Manny was. But as we were shooting I noticed I was becoming much more fascinated by Romeo than by Manny in many ways. And I think the acting had something to do with it. I didn’t think the acting would be that good. Edmond Ross [who plays Romeo] is Diana Ross’s son.
Offscreen: Oh, I didn’t know that.
BG: So here is a kid who grew up with incredible wealth and privilege, grew up with the absolute best of everything, and yet every time I said action, he became this guy. He knew the street, the language. It was really an amazing thing to see. As a director I never try to force my will on the film because a film has a life of its own. My job is to tell the story that is there, that is working, because I could have easily forced this film into what I had envisioned in the script. And I can’t do that as an artist. I want to tell the truth. And sometimes what I have in my mind isn’t truthful. It is manipulated. It seems false. So even when we were cutting, with my editor, we kept asking, is this truthful, do you believe this? There were so many lines of dialogue we cut out because it seemed like a lecture.
Offscreen: The editing is excellent because it starts out with the first scenes are quite long, 4 or 5 minutes, and then they get progressively shorter as the film goes on. And at first the characters don’t interact. At the end the scenes get much shorter, and the editing begins to confuse the spaces by match cuts, eye line glances, overlapping dialogue, etc. There was one great sequence where you are match cutting across scenes through opening doors. You have one character in a scene in the bed and cut to another character from a different storyline in a bed.
BG: Yes we cut from Romeo smoking crack to the guy in the welfare hotel beating the kids.
Offscreen: As it progresses it becomes more together. Is that what you were trying to say, that they were becoming much more connected by the end?
BG: Yes and that is also the contribution of my editor. The editor is this tiny little Indian woman [Shilpa Sahi], who if you met her would be so gentle, and sensitive and you look at her and the film and there is something that doesn’t fit. But she was brilliant and fearless as far as with cutting things out, and trying things out. The film wasn’t working at first, and she just said, don’t worry the film is here and we are going to find it. And we pretty much rewrote the film. Because a film writes itself three ways, there’s the screenplay, production and post-production. And you have to be able to go with that. Because if I would have forced my will on the film it wouldn’t have worked.
Offscreen: The first two major scenes with Romeo, are rape scenes, first is the opening gang rape of the young woman, Romeo’s girlfriend, and then the old man, who they rape with an anal enama. Sex is an important part of all the characters, so I guess sex unites all human beings.
BG: I don’t see it as sex. Romeo wants to destroy that girl.
Offscreen: And his name being Romeo…
BG: Yes that is against type, the fact that he is named Romeo he is very charming, when he goes to the high school with his girlfriend he is charming, until he tells her to “fuck off”. Same thing with the old man, just destroy him. It is senseless violence.
Offscreen: My understanding is that the opening gang rape scene in the US theatrical is cut?
BG: Yes, it is still there but cut by one minute. You don’t see everything that they do. You don’t see them raping her . You don’t see them peeing on her. It was still hard, and too hard for many people.
Offscreen: So what was your intent in starting the film so strongly?
BG: I wanted to say, this is it: truth in advertising. This is where we are going. Originally that rape scene came twenty minutes into the film and the film opened in the bodega [convenience store], and it wasn’t working. It was too slow. So a good friend of mine, a director, who I screened the film for told me, why don’t you put the rape scene up front? I first said, no are you crazy. Everyone will walk out. And he said, anyone who walks out in the beginning will walk out twenty minutes in, so you might as well just go with it. And he was right. So we moved it to the beginning and it had the right effect. It just told anyone watching this movie, just strap yourself in.
Offscreen: It is probably the harshest scene in the film, so if you can sit through that, you’ll make it.
BG: Ya probably.
Offscreen: But the thing with this film, and I’ll quote myself her (from the festival catalogue): “Their weaknesses humanize them and in the end we are touched by the ability of tarnished characters to rise above the squalor around them and produce genuine acts of compassion, sacrifice and love.” You sort of have that in Combat Shock when Frankie says, “I want to save my family,” but in a very warped way. But there is a bit of hope in Crackdown, with the kids and the Marybeth character and her husband who is going to live. So what has changed in the twenty odd years to make you more optimistic?
BG: In the book there is no hope. In the book the boy leaves the sister in the hotel room and he takes off. In the other story, Marybeth’s pimp/boyfriend might live but they find out that he has Aids. I couldn’t do that in the movie.
Offscreen: Why is that?
BG: Because you can’t take an audience through a 100 minute story and devastate them. You know, it takes me ten years to make a film. And not by choice. So I couldn’t do that to an audience. And the book was a different animal. One of the reasons I write books is because I can get away with that. What does it cost to produce a book. Not much, but the film came to a cost of 1.2 million. That was just a decision as a human being that I just couldn’t make.
Offscreen: Do you think that is because when you are reading a novel it is on a one to one impact, whereas in a film, with 600 plus people, there is a collective sense of anguish?
BG: Yes, there would be a collective sense of anger and depression. I want to provoke people but I don’t want to destroy them or rape them like Romeo or leave them completely devastated. At that point I want them thinking, and start a conversation on end one. Even still, people tell me there is no hope whatsoever, which I don’t agree with.
Offscreen: Yes I think there is too.
BG: In the book Manny goes to prison. With Romeo that ends the way it should. And just the other two stories end differently.
Offscreen: Romeo goes in a blaze of glory, like Scarface.
BG: Scarface, it is his dream. It is funny how Scarface has become such a reality in the street life.
Offscreen: Yes, reality imitating art. Maybe one last question. When I saw the effect at the end of Combat Shock, projecting film over Frankie’s face as a way to suggest his subjectivity, externalizing his mind, it reminded me of the what John Boorman said here last year at a Masterclass that was held at the FNC . There was a question from the audience about a similar technique he used in Zardox, where we see film images projected over the Sean Connery character’s face: Boorman replied it was out of necessity, and that was the cheapest way to create a special effect. You hear about that a lot, and artists throughout the centuries have always worked under some type of constraint and compromise. As someone who has taught film, made low budget and higher budgeted films, do you think there is a correlation between constraints, whether financial or political, and creativity?
BG: Absolutely. I agree 100%. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had strong producers, people I can trust, who have told me to be careful about that, this doesn’t make sense, watch that. If I would have had complete creative control my films wouldn’t be as good. I make films not to be God but to communicate with people and if my ideas aren’t coming across my producers can say, “Well, what is your intention,” and if I reply, “ well I want people to see this about a character and if they say, “well were not getting it,” I have to rethink because ultimately I want to communicate ideas, and it is not so much that is has to be my pure idea. I write books for that. A book is a pure vision, good or bad. But a film I want to communicate my ideas and I would want to reach a larger audience than with Combat Shock. I want to make movies. I can’t do one movie every ten years. These German moves that I do, I love doing them. Being a director is the best job in the world, but it is different. It is not what is in my heart and soul to tell these stories. I do the best I can. If I hadn’t done them I couldn’t have done Crackdown. What I’m most proud of with Crackdown is the acting, which is good across the board. Everyone is really terrific. And that is because of these German films, having been in every situation, you make ten of these films and everything goes wrong. It is like a shell that you develop, so that when all the shit goes wrong in Crackdown, when it was collapsing around me I was really cool and it helped the actors. I wasn’t freaking out and that is from making all these crazy German films.
Offscreen: Well I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this.