Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter, Part 3

Working the Genre

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 22 minutes (5481 words)

DT: Have you see Larry Cohen’s Demon ( God Told me To )?

Brian: No, but I hear it is great.

DT: That’s probably the classic alien impregnation film.

Jason: And Insemenoid .

Brain: You know another one that I think is terrific is The Entity . It was done as a Poltergeist type thing but it was based on a truthful account. Watch that movie again and you’ll see it is really an alien abduction movie, 100%. What really happened is the alien abduction thing, not the poltergeist deal.

DT: And Demon Seed in another way.

Brian: Yes, that was a little clunkier in a way.

DT: Structurally Progeny reminded me of The Exorcist , which is probably just a coincidence. There is the alien presence possessing the body, then you have going to the hospital with the tests that try to rationalize it. And then the first time the Brad Douriff character opens the door and says his name, “Clavell,” it is just like the announcement of Father Merrin, the expert is now here.

Brian: Yes. And structurally Wetherly (Wilford Brimley) and Clavell are the same character. They occupy the same space. Clavell comes in exactly at the time that Wetherly dies. They can never overlap because Wetherly provides the old world, fatherly, good sense. His outlook is you know what, there are some things that we just do not understand, and you have a family to look after, so you just get a good stiff upper lip, and do your duty. Don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it. And Clavell’s the guy going, “you know what, there’s some weird shit going on! And science is not going to explain it. Believe me, I’ve been taking notes, and it don’t add up. I don’t know what it means, but it sure is weird.” Somebody asked the question last night [after the screening] and I think they were right, that I always had a problem with Clavell’s exit. I never knew what to do with that. Never had a clue. And the funny thing is that Brad never had a problem with that. At one point before Brad was cast I was going to play him much more comedically, so that when he left it would be just like a joke. But Brad wouldn’t have anything of it because he didn’t see the guy as anything but a composite of Peel, and these main guys who had written the books. He was doing these researchers and doing them straight. And everything he says, except going in and breaking the law, is really a composite. A funny thing about this movie is that you’ve seen it many times before, certainly on television, and yet it is trying to do it in the final way. This is the pure version of that story. Whether that’s entertaining enough is another question! Brad does represent that. When he’s upset at the blood, he’s really upset at the blood. He’s not goofing, even though the audience might find it funny. In a normal horror movie that would be nothing, but because of the medicalness of it and the reality of the scene, theoretically you are supposed to be feeling bad about this woman. Cutting her is not like getting your head cut off in Masters of the Flying Guillotine . Because there is no connection, that’s just for fun. But when you see her get cut, it is terrible all of a sudden.

DT: Well, the Fant-asia crowd is infamous for laughing at horror, but they didn’t laugh at that, which tells you that the scene was successful on that level. You’ve said that this is your mainstream film, and I could definitely see how it is, but it also seems to me that the film is so down beat. Jillian McWhirter’s character dies. How did you get that to stick?

Brian: Well that was always a tricky thing. I think that was a Stuart thing, that her husband cut her open and she dies. And we talked about it a lot. The typical ending would have been for Craig to cut her open and have us think she is dead, but he brings her back, the baby gets loose, they chase him down in the hospital, there’s a big chase in a taxi, and we kill the thing. And I think that would have made a lot of people happy. I think it would have made a lot of the audience last night happy. Because then you could take the first half of the movie and take about 15-20 minutes out if it, so it moves really fast getting there and then put 20 minutes of monster chase at the end and you’ve got a movie. But the minute you do that, you’ve subverted the idea of doing the abduction movie as per the gospels. It’s like doing the life of Jesus except he gets down off the cross, kills Pilote and sets up the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth! Except that’s not what we were doing. If we had gone in that direction it would have rendered the whole opening superfluous to a great degree. It was a choice the producers had made. If they would have wanted it to be an action movie, I would have said ok, let’s construct the beginning so that it goes there. Although I would have been a little worried because fetuses running around and attacking, would have meant really putting on my thinking cap to make something interesting out of it and not make it repetitious from other movies. For the producers and distributors to be willing to accept a movie that was that clean of a concept, and was so down beat, that’s something you can only do with an independent movie. You can never do this with a major studio. They would have at least made her go crazy and start killing people or have her become a monster. And I think that commercially, they are right. Both those other options makes a more commercial movie. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But, for better or for worse, this was doing something different. I was really surprised that the producers and distributors at one point before we began shooting didn’t say, “you know what, she can’t die.”

DT: Maybe it is because both the producers and one of the writers are Canadian. Here in Quebec we have a tradition of…

Brian: Killing people!

DT: Well we have that too, but no just having heroes who are not heroes in the traditional sense, or who are losers. Maybe that’s where your film is more European in that they will accept tragedies much more than in the US.

Brian: I think Europeans are more willing to accept the ideas that are in a movie.

That’s why for example Society did really well in Europe and in the US did nothing, where it was a big joke. And I think it’s because they responded to the ideas in there. I was totally having fun with them, but they are there nonetheless. And it is with this, Progeny as well, if you are aware of it. I think most people would never even see any of this. In trying to find an ending we realized that she had to die, it was a tragedy, and quite frankly we make it even worse because I purposely had her tell us, right in the face, “I’m going to die.” That was meant to give him the motivation to do anything he needs to do to save her. But really we are telling the audience exactly what the ending was, even though we knew they would never believe it. There is no way anyone that who has heard about this movie could think that were going to kill her. Then at the end when she says I don’t want to die and he says I won’t let you die, well the hero does not say that on screen, in a close-up to his crying wife, and become the hero. So by that point you’ve got to be taken by surprise. One of the tricks of this movie is that the climax is emotional not physical. Nothing happens, not in the sense of watching a blank screen, but in the story, almost nothing happens. Basically a guy kidnaps his wife and kills her. That’s what happens. The rest of it is people talking about what might happen, what they remember.

DT: One way her death might have been redeemed, in terms of the audience, is to have the baby carry on, like in Rosemary’s Baby where she doesn’t want to give the baby up, but we don’t even get that. We don’t know what the baby is like, whether it is evil, or what?

Brian: Also what we were going on is that when men are abducted they often say that they are sometimes given babies to hold and they are in rooms with a bunch of other babies. That was a difficult thing to get into and really what happened is that the movie ends with her dying, and there’s a lot of controversy with adding to that. Stuart was dead set against adding anything to that ending. And my feeling was that we needed some sort of other jump, some payoff, we needed another texture. By that point it was so bleak that we need to see something sunny, just a little sweet. And so then we said let’s set him up with some sweetness for a little punch, punch, punch before we go home. It’s obviously straight out of Carrie , this dream like, barely noticeable slow motion, this la-la-la stuff And then when we see her with the baby, for the audience, they’ve got to think, firstly, why didn’t they arrest him? They’ll hold that in their pocket and then when Craig sees her with the baby, which unfortunately is some big toddler instead of a baby. Casting, you ask them to bring in a baby and they bring in a toddler! But when she shows up all of a sudden you are thinking, is this guy crazy or what, and you begin to question what you’ve seen before. You don’t know who the dreamer is here. And then when he takes the baby we of course hit him with a Screaming Mad George baby because it is called progeny and by god we’ve got to show the progeny or else were are going to be in deep shit. And then we wanted to show that he’s been taken up to this horrible place and then, oh my god it was a dream, but oh, he’s got a little blood on him. And then the going off thing was also very controversial because what I really tried to find was a way to not make him such a total loser at the end, to give him some kind of heroism, make him reach out and take a stand or something. We tried some things but it just didn’t work. Ideally we would have had an ending like that of the Incredible Shrinking Man where at the very end, the guy loses and he’s left in the basement shrinking and fighting spiders. And then he gets too small for that, and then he just shrinks and shrinks and he can’t win, but at the very end he gets an epiphany. He realizes this incredible, mystical truth, which gives you this incredible feeling at the end, like he’s not a loser, that what he’s realized is something else. We tried different things for that and it just didn’t work because it doesn’t have the same kind of structure as the Shrinking Man . And in the end after trying many things we decided to have him pull the chair out, so he’s doing something, and he disappears, and what it means I don’t know. At least he’s gone and what it does in a sense is tell us is, you know what, it was a science fiction movie after all.

Jason: (Laughing) Will he be back for a sequel?

Brian: Oh I don’t know.

DT: What you could do for a sequel, is to do the myth of Orpheus where the husband goes into the zone to bring back his dead wife.

Brian: Oh, that’s a good idea! That’s a great idea.

DT: I can see Rosemary’s Baby relating to just about all your films. I see it in Society , in The Initiation . They all deal with outsiders, people who aren’t able to fit into society or into a particular clique. Many of your stories deal with young people and their inability to fit in, we see it in Return of the Living Dead 3 also.

Brian: Young audiences like to see movies about themselves. I think almost everybody does. And sometimes that’s a conscious thing. Certainly in Progeny it wasn’t about teenagers, it was about doctors. With Return of the Living Dead 3 we all liked the idea that John Penney (of Trimark) pitched, his story, and we all might have liked it for different reasons. But I’m sure one of the reasons was based on the star-struck-teenagers-in-love angle. It does fix the audience. Who wants to see zombies movies in general? Mostly it is in that teenagers to early twenties range. And after that there is an audience, but not enough to make a zombie film. I think on a very basic level yes. But is it totally market-driven? Well we didn’t go to a mall and ask people multiple choice questions!

DT: Since there are also adults in the audience, why do you think adults persist in horror?

Brian: I don’t know. I always think, from my own interest, its like I’m a junkie or something. When I was a little kid and watched horror movies they just kept me from sleeping. I was so stirred. And after that I kept wanting to get back to that experience. It’s like if you take heroine the first time it will make you real sick, and then after that your just remembering what it was like trying to get off! They don’t really work for me anymore. If a horror movie, for example, works for me now, by scaring me, boy that’s a pretty amazing effect. I think so much of horror has to do with adolescence anyway. I think everyone likes it, but if you make a horror movie that really works for adults, they can’t be afraid of the same puberty related things, like gee I’m changing and have these weird desires.

DT: I think it is transformation actually. As we age we also go through different periods, life stages and transformations, and there is a fear at the adult level. So I think as we get older we still go through transformation angst. We saw this type of adult transformation in some early 1990’s films like Wolf and The Mask . As we get older we still go through changes and as we get closer to death there is fear in that sense too.

JS: What was your inspiration for Return of the Living Dead 3 because the second one was a box-office and critical failure?

Brian: Well, obviously, the reason a sequel gets made is only whether it will make money, because it is a business venture. My dealings with 3 were quite involved. I was introduced to Denizia Minor and Joel Castleberg who had the rights theoretically to 3 and they didn’t know much about horror movies so they were going to have me direct and develop it. I helped set it up over at Imperial and we even got to the point of signing contracts and interviewing writers, but then it turned out that the rights were not clear and the whole thing fell apart. A few months later Trimark called me and said, by the way we have the rights, would you like to direct it and I went ahead and did that. Which didn’t make Denizia Minor very happy. I should have not done it unless she did it, but she just married a billionaire so she’s ok. Can you imagine marrying a millionaire!

DT: Now that would change you!

Brian: Anyway, that’s just to show you how complicated it can be getting there. When Trimark called me in it was because I had met Mark Amin before, the head of the company, and he had liked Society . When we began the way it worked was, we have this title until December so we got to make the movie and we need to interview writers, so we interviewed writers and got pitches. John Penney was the one that we liked the best, and his pitch was Romeo and Juliet. And my idea from the beginning was to make the main character a zombie. Because I didn’t know how else to change things. I mean, it is the second sequel to the alternate sequel of a classic horror movie. This is a pretty twisted lineage, and there’s been a lot of zombie movies out there It’s pretty daunting in a way, so you ask yourself, what are you going to do? You’ve got to give the audience what they expect out of a zombie movie, but you’ve got to do more than that or else what’s the point. So that was my approach. To have the main character a zombie, but moreso than in The Day of the Dead , where you have a zombie getting smart. I also wanted this to be linked to Dan O’Bannon’s style and mythology. Everyone wanted to have this brain eating stuff, which I never liked because I thought, why would they eat brains, that’s just cute, there’s no reason for that. Dan O’Bannon’s idea was that there was this gas that was created to eradicate marijuana and it ended up bringing dead things to life. And it was stoppable, or in his version the world was over by the end of the movie. To make money of course, it wasn’t. And so I tried to take Penney’s idea of the kids on the run and his idea of the freezing bullet, which I thought was really good, and go with that. What I wanted to do was get in some of this tattooing, piercing, this body art type of stuff because I really find it fascinating. And then on top of that I had some of the mythology because there was no way they were going to let go of the brain eating stuff. So what I finally arrived at to tie in everything, including also the Romero bit and not just the EC comic stuff and O’Bannon, was that the reason for the dead acting crazy when they come back is that their nervous system is deteriorating. They’re alive but everything is just rotting away, and that doesn’t feel real good. The first thing that goes is the nervous system, which makes sense to me. So what they are trying to do is replenish the nerves, so the reason they are eating you is because they know there are living human nerves in the flesh, and the place where the most nerves are is, of course, in the brain. So that’s the reason for eating the brains. And also to use O’Bannon’s idea that body parts could move around too, unlike Romero’s zombies who stop when they are shot in the head. I didn’t want to just throw away the O’Bannon stuff, whereas in Silent Night Deadly Night 4 ( The Initiation ) I never really got into the idea of the Santa Claus going around killing, so didn’t really deal with it.

DT: You say that you are fascinated with the whole body art subculture. Why is that, and how did you research that?

Brian: I went to some of those clubs and talked to people who do a lot of that stuff, and it’s not like they know. They’re the last ones who know what they’re doing. I was thinking of myself, when I was a crazy teenager, in the pre-tattooing days, I always thought the Maori’s with their tattooed faces looked really cool. In a bad moment I might have done that because I thought it was just the coolest thing, I don’t know why. When I got to that point I started thinking that it is all about identity. We couldn’t do the tattooing because our time schedule was too short. We stuck basically with piercing and a little bit of scarification. If we had a longer time schedule I would have got into the tattooing. But the idea to me when you do piercing is that there is this thing about metal and flesh that is weirdly erotic. But it is also a lot about who you are, putting a post through your tongue and lots of earrings, it’s kind of an identity thing. What I tried to deal with from Curt’s point of view is that, well here is my girlfriend and she is dead. The Romeo and Juliet thing is that Curt will not give up, he’s in love, it doesn’t matter whether they are from different families, or she’s paraplegic, or that she’s dead. That’s the whole thing with the love story. If it isn’t impossible it isn’t romantic. And the more impossible the more romantic. Love stories really work best if they fail. So for me the idea that she was a zombie really gave us a dynamic. And we could still have zombies chasing them, because that’s the part that’s the normal movie, and then bringing in the military that’s a Dan O’Bannon thing. And letting them have the magic bullet gives it a science fiction element that nobody has seen. And adding this business of the military using it for weapons, I thought that’s just what they would do, use them as meat batteries. Because if you put them inside an exo-skeleton they would just blow. You don’t have to feed them or gas them up, and if they got shot nothing would happen to them. That’s a good mythology that’s in the background, but in the foreground it is Curt and Julie. For me the most interesting thing was to have her go through the stages. Like the two guys in Dan’s movie who realize that they are dead. I always thought that was a great scene, really a creepy scene because they just seem so sick and so upset about it. It was a comedy but really creepy. That was the idea with Julie. I made Curt the straight arrow military kid who’s father is doctor Frankenstein and Julie Frankenstein’s monster. I wanted to have her realize that she is dead and that it’s made her feel funny. Then as she deteriorates she starts really hurting and starts getting this incredible hunger that is undefined. Obviously a zombie can not know what they have to do, if you deal with them seriously like that. And she’s the only one that is really treated seriously. So I wanted to show her going through these stages of disorientation and pain, and being hungry and not knowing what it was. It could be hilarious, like the scene that I really love in the fruit store where she is just trying to eat anything, but there is no saliva, nothing there, until she accidentally bites that guy and tastes the blood, and all of a sudden realizes something. But as she gets really crazed and hungry, she realizes that the only way she can keep it away is to hurt herself. So she finds that she has to inflict pain on herself, pushes metal into her flesh. Only something really dramatic can momentarily overcome the pain and hunger briefly, it can stop it. The other thing that can stop it is her love for Curt. Those are the two things that can hold it back. But the poignancy of it is that she hates herself for it, she’s disgusted by herself. She’s aware enough that she’s disgusted by what she’s becoming. For example, after she eats that Korean guy’s brains and they end up at the bridge, which is my favorite scene, all of a sudden she starts cutting herself and it relieves her. And there are people that do that, they cut themselves to relieve things going on inside them. And what I really like is how Curt just thinks that she’s terrible. To me that’s very realistic! At one point he just has to be disgusted by her and that drives her to suicide. But he gets over that and tells her that they can work it out. I think it is a great dynamic between them. Like when he finds her in the water and he thinks she’s drowned. He picks her up and she starts saying, why did you bring me back you should have left me dead, like in Frankenstein, the pathos. “Why? Why did you sew me up like this! Me like dead!” I think Mindy Clarke did such a great job acting. I think that idea is poignant. In some ways it is like in Homer’s The Odyssey, when the character goes into the land of the dead where there’s the big pit and his mother is there and he has to deal with all the dead. It’s like you’re here beyond the land of the sun, and it’s this twisted poignancy because everyone belongs there but nobody wants to be there, even though they know they belong there. That to me is the core of the movie. I think it’s a very well structured movie, carefully plotted. You see her progression step by step.

DT: Quite an influential film also. Dellamorte Dellamore , I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a similar scene where there’s a motorcycle accident with the guy dying and he returns as a zombie and his girlfriend lets herself be eaten by him.

Brian: Oh yes, of course, I remember, “he’s only eating me, leave us alone” with her running after that head in the bridal veil!

JS: Lucio Fulci’s made famous for his living dead films. When you were writing part 3 had you seen any of these movies?

Brian: I had seen a couple of them, I’m not even sure which ones they were. I have just seen The Beyond recently and it occurred to me I had seen some of that movie. I’d certainly seen Zombie , or what is it called Zombie 2 , the one where the zombie fights the shark under water. I really liked that because it was so shocking. So maybe unconsciously because I think that maybe you don’t lose anything and that was pretty strong stuff. And then again I also like the Mario Bava one with all the kids in the movie theatre.

JS: That’s Lamberto Bava, Demons .

Brian: Yes, to me Demonia was also an interesting film, although Demonia 2 was not as successful. But some day I’ll do something where a man in a metal mask is handing out leaflets and I won’t remember where it came from.

DT: That’s from Demonia by the way!

Brian: Oh is it, there you go! So consciously no, I was going with Romero and Dan O’Bannon. But that was very conscious, even to the point where the hispanic zombies are banging through the door, I just thought you can’t do a zombie movie where there isn’t a scene like in Night of the Living Dead of zombies crashing through the door. It’s part of the vocabulary. It wasn’t something I wanted to subvert. Sometimes you subvert things, like in The Dentist where the little girl is being chased by Corbin and she goes into the room and his hand comes by the door and she shuts it and goes by the door into the hallway and he’s standing there. That’s such a typical thing that I was very careful not to put any music there because I wanted to subvert it. Like for example the way she wins in the end, the way the whole ending of that thing happens where he just doesn’t do anything to her. To me that just subverted the whole genre, consciously. Originally in the script she bites him, she wins that way, which is the more traditional thing, but in The Dentist I wanted to completely subvert it, and that’s just a choice. In Return 3 with the zombies at the door I didn’t want to subvert it at all. It wasn’t about, oh gosh now I’ve got to do the old hands through the door. Even though I knew it wouldn’t ever work the way it had, I also didn’t want to make it a joke but play it straight and do a good job at it knowing that it’s old hat. The only thing that makes it a little new is the O’Bannon touch, which is the guy with the long spine and the head that gets knocked off. That’s right out of O’Bannon. The rest is Romero. The only thing that is new about that movie stylistically, is more about the stages than the mythology of the zombie experience.

DT: It’s also a lot sexier.

Brian: Well, hey what’s her name in the O’Bannon film.

JS: Linnea Quigley.

Brian: Yea, I always admired O’Bannon for that! He just went right into it. He said we’re having teenagers with their radios, let’s see, it’s a horror movie so we gotta have a naked girl in it. She takes off her clothes and dances naked on a tombstone, it rains and she doesn’t get her clothes back so for the rest of the movie they’re sitting in the car and, “will somebody give me a jacket, damn it’s cold!” So every scene, she’s basically, well she’s got boots on. What I loved about her character is how she would say, “you know what I’ve always thought, like if all these really old men mauled you” and of course at the end she has all these old zombies attack her. You know we actually used Linnea’s face for all the mock up of Julie’s make-up because Steve Johnson was married to her and so he had all these styrofoam heads of her.

DT: I’d like to talk about Initiation because it’s a film no one seems to talk about which I think is quite wonderful. After the screening someone mentioned David Cronenberg and you said that you enjoy his work. The first hallucination scene in Initiation , with the beetle scurrying along the wall and the warm brownish lighting tones, reminded me a lot of Naked Lunch , which was made after Initiation .

Brian: I guess it is in a way.

DT: I wonder whether Cronenberg had seen it?

Brain: I doubt it.

DT: In turn, there’s a line in the film where Maude Adams says, “you’re just giving form to the fear that’s inside of you,” which could be a line from The Brood .

Brain: Yes, but I probably didn’t take it from The Brood . The Cronenberg films that I really internalized were Videodrome and Scanners . The Brood I don’t think I even saw until the early 1990’s. I think I would have liked it a lot if I’d seen it earlier. It almost has a little of that Don’t Look Now thing, with the little children in the raincoats. I guess that’s a common theme, the fear of something being inside. The Brood is such an odd movie, though I don’t think it had the right ending. It’s totally wrong.

Part 4

Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter, Part 3

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