Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter

Working the Genre

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 7 minutes (1503 words)

Brain Yuzna was one of many invited guests of the Montreal Fant-Asia 1998 Film Festival (July 10-August 9). Yuzna’s two most recent films were featured in the festival’s International section, Progeny and The Dentist 2 . Also present at the screening of Progeny were leading actress Jillian McWhirter, producer Jack Murphy, and co-writer Aubrey Solomon. Since entering the film industry as producer on Stuart Gordon’s groundbreaking Re-animator , both Yuzna and Gordon have gone on to become important figures in the American independent horror scene. Yuzna’s audacious film debut, Society , offended many Americans with its treatment of class and surreal body fusing ritual, “shunting.” Not surprisingly, the film was a big commercial and critical success in Britain, where class is not a taboo subject, and a failure in the US. Yuzna’s films, which often deal explicitly with sexual anxiety, have always been on the cutting edge of horror. We met up with Yuzna and Progeny star Jillian McWhirter to discuss his latest offering and Yuzna’s earlier films. We interviewed them together but for purposes of fluidity present the interviews separately.

DT: Was Progeny your first film?

JM: No, not by a long shot. I’ve done a lot of theatre. I’ve done about 15 films. Last Man Standing directed by Joseph Merhi, After Midnight directed by the Wheat brothers. I enjoyed that, which was my only other horror flick. The Progeny is my first science fiction film and is one of my favorite roles. I like doing horror and science fiction because it is more challenging than being chased by a bomb or something.

DT: You’re being chased from within in this one! It’s a bit harder to run away when you’re carrying what’s chasing you. Do you like the horror genre?

JM: I do, though this is the first time I’ve really been exposed to it. I started renting movies to see what’s out there; it is a whole world out there! There’ some bizarre films out there. I have to admit, someone invited me to a screening of Re-animator , I went and watched it and it was, oh my God, what is this!

DT: Yea, it gets that reaction even from the most jaded horror fans.

JM: Little did I know that I’d be working with Brian on not one but two films ( The Dentist 2 ).

DT: In terms of helping you prepare for the role, were there any films that you watched?

JM: For Progeny I wanted to keep myself pretty pure but I watched a lot of documentaries about alien abduction. And I read a lot of books. And of course, I was influenced by Rosemary’s Baby . I love that movie, it is one of my favorites.

DT: One of the things I found interesting about your performance is that you have to shift, like the Mia Farrow character in Rosemary’s Baby from fear, to paranoia, to maternalism, all these kind of emotions back and forth.

JM: There were days where I would be doing the nightmare scene and then run back to change clothes come back and do a very docile scene. So emotionally I had to just put myself totally into the situation in each take and in-between too.

DT: You have a theatre background, so do you ascribe to any acting style or school?

JM: I started studying in New York and studied the Method, but would spent a lot of time absorbing the material and imagining it and I believe that if you absorb it deep enough it becomes a part of you. And if that’s what Method is, then that’s the way a lot of people think.

DT: Would you go off and stay in character?

JM: I think it would depend. If it was a heavy scene I would stay focused. If it was a lighter scene I would have some fun in-between. I found that more in The Dentist 2 because the character was a lot lighter for me, and I was laughing a lot more and having fun.

DT: What were some of the more difficult scenes for you to film in Progeny , both physically and emotionally?

JM: We’ll start with the physical. The scene of the huge tentacled alien involved the use of the green screen. I had to lie on a small board, about a foot and a half wide, on a crane in front of the green screen. There wasn’t a rig on me because they wanted the least amount of things to paint or computerize out, so I had to balance myself from extremely high up, and I did pretty well. At one point I was so high up that it started vibrating, and I said, “bring me down, just bring me down!” Emotionally I would have to say the very ending when the alien turns into its real look, so called monster, and it was just me with the monster, totally nude, and the emotions going on is that I was being raped, and that’s an amazing violation. And at the same type there was only one man working the monster, so I had to work some of it also. I was having to push my legs and move back and I had to feel like it was the monster doing it while at the same time I was the one doing it. That was physically and emotionally difficult.

DT: I’ve read that you are quite a religious person.

JM: Yes.

DT: I was thinking how that adds an interesting twist to the story. Did that have any effect on your interpretation of the character and what she was going through with the question of abortion?

JM: I would have to say the religious part actually helped me in the sense of wanting to have the baby and wanting to keep the baby. In the rape scene, being torn, I really wanted to get rid of it because of what was going through my mind at the time, but when it comes to that time you just can not do it. And that’s what gave me the strength to fight for my baby. I was married to a doctor and they were saying that something was wrong with my baby, but there was no way I was going to let them touch it. So in that sense it did help by giving me more of the strength to fight. I keep saying it, but actually the little baby alien in the operation was so cute. I wanted to keep it but they wouldn’t let me!

DT: Were you on the set with Screaming Mad George?

JM: Yes, he was working on the aliens, which they also named. I remember one was named Moe, who had a very strong presence. It was me laying on the operating table, with five aliens all around me and each alien puppet had 2 people working on them. They were having to sit there and beat my body, slow, fast, at different camera speeds so they had to shoot it over and over again. And Screaming Mad George was great. We had fun. You can’t be a prima donna in that situation because it is a hard enough shoot already.

DT: Is he a calm presence, because his stuff looks so mad!

JM: He doesn’t talk much. He’s very busy, and neat looking, with this long hair.

JS: Does he deserve his name, Screaming Mad?

JM: Well, I think his name comes out in his work, his screaming madness.

JS: Was this your first film where you were covered in goo?

JM: Yes, and that was another thing, that big monster, we had some pretty good laughs with that one. Just being up in that big monster and I’m the only one who can reach it and Brian loves it, the bloodier, the gooier, the better. It was like saliva but thick. The camera crew was having a good time, telling me what to do and how to grease the monster up since I was the only one who could reach it. It was huge! In the process of making the monster they would had to do a body fitting for me, step by step.

DT: It’s almost like a H.R.Giger lawn chair!

JM: Actually we had to re-shoot the scene twice, I think because of the lighting. It was a tough shoot because it was very fast. There was this one particular day where we had to get out of a house quickly because we didn’t have the location anymore. I was doing this one scene, then they rushed me into the back, changed my clothes, bring me back up and say action. And I’m asking myself, what am I doing! But Brian and I got along great. He could just speak to me and I would understand what he wanted, it would just flow.

Part 2

Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 Interviews   body horror   brian yuzna   horror   jillian mcwhirter   science fiction