Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter, Part 4

Working the Genre

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 10 minutes (2384 words)

DT: How did you come up with the idea of the bugs and the beetles for Initiation ?

Brian: You know what it was, I had just read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and thought, you know no one is really going to let me make that into a movie so I’m just going to put it in here, since Richard Gladstein was letting me do whatever I came up with so long as it didn’t cost anything. George (Screaming Mad) had already been making these giant cockroaches for Nightmare on Elm Street so I thought, let’s go with these bugs. To me I find it really creepy. I used to get haunted by bugs as a kid, especially cockroaches, because I grew up in Panama, where we had huge cockroaches. Sometimes they’d come up out of the drain, and you had to fight them out the bathroom. In the tropics you just don’t get rid of bugs you just move them aside. It’s too warm. So that’s what it was about. The thing about Initiation for me is that it isn’t well done formally speaking. It’s sort of sloppy. But what I really liked about it is that it really starts with these ideas and tries to give flesh to them. Everything in it is based on either the myth of Lilith or some weird interpretation of a feminist story. Lilith is the alternative Eve. She was Adam’s wife before Eve. Adam rejected her because she wouldn’t let him lie on top of her when they had sex, I think. So they kicked her out and brought in Eve out of his rib, who would do anything he wanted. Lilith ended up on the Red Sea somewhere and gave birth to all the things that plagued mankind. I forget all the terminology now, but she’s the virgin in the sense of virgins in Biblical times. In the biblical times a virgin didn’t necessarily have to do with someone who hadn’t had sex. It was a woman who belonged neither to a husband or a father. So a whore could be a virgin, but that’s a different context. You have to look at how language evolved, because that’s so contrary to our notion or even medieval notions that it is hard for us to understand. But Lilith is usually portrayed with fire below her waist, and bird’s claws. We tried to take the central female character through Lilith. That’s why Neith Hunter started out a la Psycho , having sex at lunch hour, with kind of a good guy. They were at one of these sex hotels so we could have a porno tape on the television. She was in a situation where she wasn’t exactly with an abusive guy, but that she had ambitions to be herself in this normal society. But just the weight of the world keeps her from even knowing where she’s at. So there she is having sex in a way that is highly exploitative, having sex and watching one of these X-rated things on television, and of course we are watching it very happily. So it’s just a foundation leading up to when she meets the Maude Adams character, Fima. Then I tried to put in a lot of simulacra, which is really the main theme. The pictures that Screaming Mad George made that looked like faces, or the scene at the park where she sees the branches and it looks like a face. If I had the money I would make a film where almost every scene has a graphic simulacra to it. Because I think that’s madness, when you start seeing things in the clouds, it’s such a great representation for projecting your own reality, or your fears. So that was only meant to be her transition and even when she starts having all her fears come out and torment her. We actually even made the sets so the walls would squeeze together and make her room smaller as she got a bit nuttier, with roaches running around. In the scene in the meat locker, she’s supposed to be in a husk, because that parallels how Lilith has to go through this stage of having a serpent’s legs. That’s why we tried to fuse her legs together and make her crawl around the floor of that meat locker and break out of the cocoon to be reborn, free. But of course at the end we made all of them bad, and I didn’t like the ending at all. It’s just that the movie was so weird and so bent in a way that it was like, just make a regular ending to tie it all together and it will be ok. But it’s not because it was wrong. The whole idea of the girl jumping off the building on fire, well she was only on fire from the waist down because that’s the power of Lilith, that she is the power of sex. So she’s free, sexually. The idea of her falling was that she was one woman who couldn’t handle it, it was too much for her. The business with Clint Howard, that was a Clockwork Orange kind of thing.

DT: You make a reference to Psycho . It is also there in the credit scene, with the concentric circles that relate thematically to the film.

Brian: Yes, and Vertigo . The concentric circle is a feminine deity, a symbol for a Goddess.

DT: Relating to Jillian’s character, you do have a lot of strong female characters in almost all of your films. Is that something that you do consciously?

Brian: You know it is just that I am heterosexual, and I just like girls! It is true. With Society it was the Billy character, and that was the way the script was written, and that was interesting. It’s not that I’m against having guy characters.

DT: This is more an observation than a question, but yourself and Cronenberg both deal with sexual anxiety and breaking down divisions and categories, such as between the living and the dead, sex and pleasure, gender. This is where the auteur question comes up again and why I think you are in a sense a horror auteur. I think you are both important directors who were at the forefront of the body horror films of the early to mid 1980’s, with Videodrome , Scanners , and most of your films dealing with that explosion of the body. I think Return of the Living Dead 3 may actually be the last film that did that, body horror. In terms of the state of horror today, do you see any motifs, patterns?

Brian: I think that’s a hard question to ask. So much of making a movie is about getting the movie made. First of all, 80% of making a movie to me is going to meetings, trying to get it to the point where they get some money in the bank. Like for an actor who isn’t a big star, making a movie is really about going to auditions and not getting the part. Dealing with your agent, working out everyday, worrying about your hair. So when you finally get to the point of making a movie… Once into a movie then I find there are certain ideas that I keep following through on, but I don’t think of them in those terms. Some of it is innate. Some of it is, well what worked before, let’s do a little of that. A lot of it is stuff that I’m constantly going back to because I haven’t gotten around to do. Like for example, the simulacra stuff, to me is, if I could ever get a big enough budget, seriously try to do again. I wanted to do it in Society and in Initiation we even set up scenes where we were going to have people be shadows. In Progeny I did one scene of that, where the lighting flashes and you see the cops. At first it seems like an alien face, but it turns out to be a cop. To me the idea of different layers of visual symbolism is really, really interesting because it is something that works all the way through nature and is really the most extreme example of how we all look at things differently. In Society , for example, things aren’t as they appear to Billy Warlock. In Initiation , it is obvious, she’s walking up the stairs and we even painted what looked like a stain on the wall, and in a vase, and on her wall. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t see consciously. It’s like watching The Haunting , when the thing is pounding outside the door, and they show the molding on the door and it looks like a face, but it is not so obvious. You could probably find something like that in every movie. And more and more I find myself solving problems that way. In for example the original The Dentist , where I was really concerned about the straightforwardness of the story, what I got into was what the world was like to him. Or else I would have found it too downbeat. I just had a hard time thinking that it was going to be a lot of fun to watch people get their teeth drilled. I didn’t see the real fun in it. Which is why I started seeing it from his point of view, to show the crud and to distort the image, show what he saw. Once you see what it is to him you can distance yourself somewhat from the terrible things that he’s doing and it starts being a little fun because what he sees is so totally different. So for example, the beauty queen in the chair, this is something that happens all the time. But if you just did the scene of some doctor who gasses a girl and starts fondling her, it’s hard to make that fun. It’s getting just a little too close to reality. But when you throw in the opera, and you see Brooke (Linda Hoffman), and what’s going on with him, to me I just love the scene. It flies. Then all of a sudden it is funny the way he’s trying to cover it up and we want him to get away with it. That type of stuff makes the whole thing more interesting. And it is the same thing in a way with Progeny . The interesting part was trying to be ambiguous. To be the way those stories are. Are these people lying? No. Why do they keep saying the same things and how can it be so contradictory to reality and in some ways each other? The only book that to me was successful in presenting this part of it was “The Mothman Prophecies,” which I’d love to do as a movie. And that one really deals with the quantum physics level of reality, which is that nothing exists until you look at it. If everyone believes in something then it turns real, that type of thing. The thing that’s interesting about Progeny is to maintain that edge of reality. So I would say that with the body stuff, yes my movies have that sort of thing. You make someone small, you turn them into a baby, or a monster, they cut themselves with things, even in Initiation I hung that guy from a hook in the meat locker. And the reason for that is I was always interested in those artists from the seventies who would hang themselves from fishhooks. I thought that was a weird thing to do. You could say there’s something about flesh and metal, even if you don’t understand it, by doing the imagery there’s something interesting.

DT: There’s another connection to Cronenberg and Crash , which is all about flesh and metal! Do you draw yourself?

Brian: Yes, I’m a doodler. I actually did art before I did movies. A matter of fact the first time I went to college I majored in the phenomenology of religion and then the second time I took studio art. So for a while I had art shows and thought I’m going to become an artist. Then I went to Soho and I said no, this isn’t my scene man, it is too much about trying to get your friends to think you are God. So then I thought, movies, that’s fun.

DT: Is that why you work so much with Screaming Mad George?

Brian: He can draw the way I wish I could. I think we are quite close in our aesthetics because we both really like surrealism. And surrealism is nothing more than projecting your mind onto a bunch of stuff. The original poster of From the Beyond was a Dali painting. The shunting in Society is straight out of Dali. So George is always imaginative and interesting and conceptual.

DT: There’s a bit of Lovecraft in him too. Like in “The Dunwich Horror” there is a creature with an eye in his hip. That kind of mixing of the anatomy freaks people out automatically, again, that breaking down of categories.

Brian: Yes. The thing about George is that if you don’t let him do his own thing in some way you are wasting his ability. He should be a much bigger force than he is, I’ve seen the stuff he could do, but the people who really get the work are the companies that do the normal thing, that aren’t too creative. Film companies don’t know how to use it. It is too out there, too deep. His stuff is too sophisticated in some ways and he’s too much of an artist. But I like that because if you can get down to the idea then you’ll find things happening that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of.

Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter, Part 4

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