Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter , Part 2

Working the Genre

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, Issue 2 / February 1999 21 minutes (5136 words)

DT: How does Brian go about directing his actors, for example, does he work from a tight script or does he allow for improvisation?

JM: He allows us to be free, he respects our opinion. We would get together to discuss the script. We did this for Progeny about three times. We weren’t paid to do that, but everyone enjoyed the story so much. We wanted to make this more of a reality based story so we wanted the script to be as strong as it could. Brian would go through the script and we would talk about things. We talked about the nudity, so that it wouldn’t be as tense when we got to the set. He’s very open, but it’s his decision. He’s not afraid to make decisions, which you can’t be as a director.

DT: Did you see Viva Erotica , the Hong Kong comedy about category 3 films, where at the end the whole crew goes nude to shoot a nude scene!

JM: I don’t know if I’d want the whole crew to be nude. First of all I’d be distracted! I’d be embarrassed and I would laugh. When I’m doing nudity I don’t have to look at myself. I’m more into it mentally, it’s the other people. I remember with the sound guy, during some of the scenes he got a little excited and had to step away! There was one point, right before the alien impregnated me with the little tube that’s coming out of the wall. I told Brian, if I am just laying here and screaming the people will be bored with that. The stories that I have read about alien abduction, they actually turn you on. Which is what they want, since they study your emotions and they want to see the sexual emotions. So I said let me do something before that, let me take that step. And so we did that and then right when I felt it coming in my body that’s when it broke and I started screaming. I loved that part of the film because of that supposed truth of what people go through. It is hard to believe, but what I think about is in the beginning, before there were a lot of reporters, before television, there are documented stories of people in different countries having the same thing happen to them. So how did they communicate?

DT: Well I guess there is something about what Jung says and the collective unconscious and that there are certain things that all people share.

JM: But how did those first two people do that!

DT: What’s interesting is that horror films are one of the best places to discuss these metaphysical questions. You can interject them into a normal film and it might ruin the whole film, but with a horror film you can really deal with these issues.

JM: I guess Progeny was my first horror/science fiction film that dealt with all that and I’d like to do more, because it is more of a challenge. In an actioner all you are doing, like I said, is running from a bomb, or a gun. In this there is a psychological twist, which is what I like.

DT: Is Sherry from Progeny one of the strongest characters that you’ve played?

Jillian: Progeny yes, and one of my favorite.

DT: And The Dentist 2 ?

Jillian: The Dentist had its own challenges but they were different. I was a pretty girl on the arm, but it had its challenges with the humor. Playing light is just as difficult as dwelling into all the darkness.

JS: Did you do The Dentist 2 straight after Progeny ?

JM: Well I did a television show in-between, then it was the Christmas holidays and then yes Progeny . I still had to go through the whole audition thing with Trimark and Image. They watched some clips from Progeny and then offered me the part. The Dentist 2 is a totally different role. Small town country girl whose lost her parents. Corbin Bernsen (Dr. Alan Finestone) comes into my life, an older man, father figure, and I start falling in love with him, finding him interesting. Which when you watch the film you are going to think, “what was this girl thinking?” My best friend tries to protect me, tries to find out about this guy, his background, why he’s in Paradise, the name of the town. Corbin was great. Tough shoot, long days, we worked on the script as we were shooting. But I was very fortunate to work with such nice people.

DT: I know you are a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, can you talk a little about what you see in him, someone who isn’t regarded as a great writer but has a large following of dedicated readers?

Brian: I don’t know that he isn’t a great writer, actually. I think that is such a subjective thing. I guess I’ve always been interested in that kind of spooky, weird stuff. I think Lovecraft, in a way, is the only one that really gets you into that hall of mirrors. If you go back to the 1800’s with Poe you can get some evocative stuff. He has his own axe to grind. Lovecraft created a whole universe that all his stories show you a little piece of and once you get into it and get past the difficulty of reading it, it starts becoming fascinating. You get into these places that you’d never imagine came from this guy who grew up with his aunts in Providence, writing for nothing. He was basically an amateur journalist who created all this stuff. He influenced so many 20th century writers of weird fiction, including Robert Bloch and others, and co-wrote stories with them and now people write stories in his mythos. You can get whole books where people write in the Cthulhu mythos. I guess you have to read it to see what’s in it. Take for example the most successful science fiction/horror writer of our time, Stephen King. He basically re-interprets the basic standard horror stories and situations, the zombie, the werewolf, the Monkey’s Paw, and he does it in a very entertaining way with modern characters and pays a lot of attention to brand names and details. But really, you are getting a fairly straightforward story in a lot of words. With Lovecraft there’s not a lot of words, often you can finish the story and still not get exactly what the plot was because it’s such a hall of mirrors and you can’t put your fingers on. And I think that’s what attracts people to his work. When you start reading him that’s what you get into and I guess it isn’t something that’s easy to relate. And that’s probably the way it is with any really good writer. You just have to read it to understand why other people read it.

DT: People say of Stephen King coming in the late 20th century, that he writes in a very cinematic style, which Lovecraft doesn’t. Does that make Lovecraft harder to adapt?

Brian: Oh yea. I think he’s incredibly difficult to adapt. And quite frankly, it isn’t done very successfully. I’d have to say that some of the ones I’ve done have been the most successful, and yet often they aren’t very Lovecraftian. Like Re-animator , it’s one of his lesser works, just a serial in a cheap magazine that was published in 6 installments and it is totally unlike Lovecraft because it is kind of a zombie movie and doesn’t deal with his mythology, his weird history of the universe. In a sense, it was a good movie, but I don’t know how much Lovecraft was in there. I think if you are a real hardcore Lovecraft fan you wouldn’t like any of them! Everything after the opening pre-credit sequence in From Beyond we made up. We told the whole story before the credits came up. A lot of the reason why those stories worked is because Stuart Gordon had a verve and an energy that just made them work through audacity and good humor. In From Beyond luckily just the subject matter was able to go in places that movies usually don’t, but we reinvented stuff. There’s none of that in the story. As Jeffrey Combs says, “The dog dick on my forehead!”

DT: There’s been a lot of Lovecraftian stuff of late, like Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness . What do you think is the best Lovecraft adaptation outside of your own of course?

Brian: With respect to Carpenter, I know a lot of people have said it isn’t a good movie and I agree it isn’t a great movie and it doesn’t hang together; but in a sense it is more Lovecraftian than almost anything else. Like when all the things are running at you from out of the tunnel. I thought that was really good.

DT: There’s also Michele Soavi with The Sect. I like the movement not necessarily away from King, who speaks very moralistically, but toward Lovecraft who doesn’t deal with evil in a moral sense.

Brian. Well what I try to do is just try and capture the spirit of it because you can take off from the plot but you can’t put your finger on it. In Necronomicon for example, people say, “well that wasn’t like any Lovecraft story.” But my literal source for that was “The Whisper and the Darkness.” I started off with a script that tried to be quite literally that. But what happened is that I took so much time producing the other two episodes that by the time I got to the third one I started realizing that if I did it the way I had it planned, in the country, in a farmhouse, we were going to have a movie that was always slow because the other two episodes were all build-up. And so I thought, I’ve got to come to the present, put him in a car, hit it with the gore and get really, really weird because this movie is, like a meal where all you get is salad, where you need a little bit of meat and potatoes. But what I was trying to do there was very much in the vein of “The Whisper and the Darkness.” How successful you are is pretty much up in the air.

DT: There was an adaptation of an episode of the Night Gallery television series. Are you familiar with it?

Brian: Yes, “Pickman’s Model,” called “Cool Air.” Even though you can’t do him I still think he should be adapted more. It’s like saying I’m going to adapt “Crime and Punishment,” even though you are not going to do it well. Most books are like that. With Lovecraft it happens that even the short stories are too obscure and difficult. I’ve read some of them many times and still I would have a hard time telling you what they were about. I was surprised the other night when Richard Stanley was able to tell me what the plot was of “Shadow out of Time!” I’ve read that story at least three times and I couldn’t tell you. Or the “Call of Cthulhu,” which I’ve even tried to adapt and I’d have a hard time telling you what the story was because I’d confuse it with the adaptation we were working on! It’s very tricky, but it’s material.

JS: You’ve worked as a writer, producer, director. Out of the three what do you prefer?

Brian: Well right now I prefer directing because of the involvement part. I like to get so heavily involved that I can’t stand up. I like that part of it. It’s not the best part for regular life. You don’t have anytime and it doesn’t pay as well as producing. It’s not great financially, probably bad for your health, I don’t know, the stress. It doesn’t bother me to be under stress and sometimes I wonder if that is a problem, being comfortable with it. I wonder if that’s good.

DT: How did Progeny come along because you didn’t write it?

Brian: It has a long history. I mean, it is Jack Murphy and Aubrey Solomon’s movie. Aubrey had written a script way back. Jack had him rewrite it and it floated around a while, at which point it was a completely different movie, more of a Stepford Wives with lots of little alien babies running around. When Jack asked if I would direct it I said I would like to focus it a little more, and I suggested they talk to Stuart Gordon about doing a little story work on it for my purposes. Stuart is the guy I always go to because he’s the best storyteller that I know. He usually can take a complicated thing and simplify it. And that’s what I did. So Stuart said let’s concentrate on the Rosemary’s Baby part of it. And we started to re-interpret the script and then Aubrey re-wrote it based on that. On one point I ended up rewriting the script for shooting, but I don’t consider myself a writer. I still feel that I’m interpreting someone else’s ideas, and it is not like I’ve never done that, but it’s not like I wrote that script. People tend to have a simplified notion of what it takes to make a movie and I guess there’s always a tendency to ascribe responsibility or blame for a movie in a very simple way. It reminds me of watching a basketball game and one team misses that final shot that would have made them win and then afterward everyone says what happened, they were awful. Well what happened is they missed the last shot, that’s all, because we want to make into a simple situation, but it really isn’t. There’s too many people involved. So it would be hard to separate Progeny from Aubrey, and Jack and certainly Stuart’s involvement. Even though at one point they aren’t even involved, or I start interpreting it to what I’m interested in, but it doesn’t mean I made up the movie.

DT: Well this leads up to a question I had because I see you as one of the few genuine horror auteurs working today. In Progeny I can see things that connect to your earlier work, though there are differences too. How do you see yourself as an auteur, or do you?

Brian: I don’t see myself that way, but as a moviemaker. I do tend to make horror, and I like horror but, well, if you write enough you develop a handwriting style, you know what I mean. If you direct enough you start repeating yourself which I try not to do but, for example, you learn to do certain things, solve certain problems, and in fact so does everyone on the production crew. Which is why movies begin to look and sound alike. Because everyone comes into it and says for example, we have to do a car crash, well let’s look at how we did the car crash before this. Or if I’m going to do a horror scene, I’ve done so many of them I know what to stay away from, so I try to use what I’ve learned to get the effect. I know one of the things I tend to do with stories now is deal with the question of relative reality. The idea that, depending on how you look at it, things change. That’s maybe what I’m aware of consciously. With a story I always try to get involved in the contradiction between people’s point of views. So for example with Progeny the story originally didn’t have any ambiguity. But what I was interested in was the idea that, hey the husband Craig Burton has just killed his wife because he couldn’t handle the fact that she was unfaithful so he created this whole story; but of course showing the wife Sherry’s point of view blows that. At one point I suggested early on that we structure the movie so that there are these breaks where you do the first act with the male characters name, you cut to black then you do the wife’s. You can almost do that with this movie because part of it is from his point of view and then it is from the wife’s point of view. At one point I even thought of structuring it as first his point of view, then her’s, then somehow mixing them together, but it never got to that point.

DT: The film also has that philosophical division that is used in many classic horror stories between science and religion or mysticism, which is probably where people will connect it to the X-Files.

Brian: Yes it is very much in that style and X-Files pretty much covers that ground. You see in a way it was a tricky movie because you are seeing something you’ve seen before, and it doesn’t really do anything different. And then on the other hand, we knew that, and that became the challenge. To tell a common story and tell it in a way that is entertaining enough to stand on its own. Tell it well. And the reason for doing that is basically to have a wider audience. I wanted the movie to be more accessible. I didn’t want it to be just for a hardcore audience.

JS: Before the movie last night you said that you thought the movie would appeal more to a European audience.

Brian: Did I say that?!

JS: Yes, outside the cinema. Why was that?

Brian: I disagree…but if I had to defend that statement I would say maybe, heck I’m just going to make this up! Maybe it is in a way more idea-based and if you do not get into its ideas, there’s a lot of waiting around. You really got to settle into it. I think it has a very subtle cinematic style. To me it’s a real good movie when I look at it as movie. I think that there are some genre people that will find it slow and not delivering enough. What happens in the end should happen in the middle, which normally I would do. But with this movie the whole intention was to not do that, to try and straddle that fence. And this meant that for me the movie is almost excruciatingly slow because I just want it to go faster.

DT: And maybe this relates back to Rosemary’s Baby . The pacing is so slow, yet there’s this incredible tension right up until the end.

Brian: That’s right, and there’s this big gamble because if you’re successful you have Rosemary’s Baby and if you don’t you have nothing! And that’s really a problem.

DT: It’s interesting that The Dentist films are you’re only films that deal with a specific phobia. It’s almost too easy to do, everyone’s afraid of the dentist. How did that idea come along?

Brian: It was Mark Amin’s idea, the head of Trimark. He wanted to do a movie called the Dentist, “Just imagine a movie called The Dentist !”

DT: Well, there already is a film, a W.C. Fields short called The Dentist that is great. And there’s a certain amount of tension in it because there’s probably nothing scarier than having W.C. Fields work on your teeth!

Brian: I was really afraid to do that because it was like doing a baseball movie, where, you know, everything had to take place in the strike zone. And the dentist can’t really kill people because that would end the movie. What I tried to do with it was first off, make it very point of view-ish, and try to make it really stylish by pushing the formal elements. Because I thought it was such a confined idea that it just had to be pushing the seams of the frame. If you’ll notice with Progeny the camera is drifting all the time. It’s never staying still because the whole story is vague, maybe story is the wrong word, but there is kind of ambiguity to it. So to me Progeny has many more subtle cinematic elements. It stays on the characters in a way that a normal genre picture won’t. The audience for these type of films usually do not want to deal with that much, they want to move on. It’s like watching the Master of the Flying Guillotine [which played at Fant-Asia]…bang, boom, bang! That’s genre sock. And that’s more of what The Dentist 2 is about, while Progeny is more atmosphere.

DT: Getting back to what you said about camera movement, in the early scene in Progeny when the husband is at the psychiatrist you have the camera filming them in a long shot in profile. You are expecting a cut but it never comes, instead the shot lasts and lasts and then dollies in slowly. I don’t think you ever do that again in the film, why is that?

Brian: What I tried to do in the opening scene is not have a cut until there is that light, because I wanted the cuts to mean a time change. We move up to the clock and there is a dissolve there. If I’d had the money there it would have been the reflection of the clock that we move in to. Instead I did a dissolve where I matted out everything but the clock, so there really wasn’t a cut yet until we move right into him and get the flash of light, and then we cut. So then he gets up and, conceptually there wasn’t supposed to be a cut again, until he gets up from his seat. So there’s these long slow moves and dissolves. His face, and the clock, a real 1940’s thing, trying to emphasize the clock. Because ultimately that’s the whole gimmick of the movie, that you lose 20 minutes; so the idea was to keep hitting you visually with this idea of the clock because later on we are going to need it. I think the movie was all at that slow pace and that’s quite frankly what bothers me about it. When I watch it I’m not that comfortable, and in some ways that is not a good thing because I really wanted to move forward and keep going at this pace, but that’s what this story is supposed to be with these little bits of stuff. Generally I would have gone much further with the terror. I want her when she’s giving birth to the fetus to pick it up and go put it in the drawer, like in Wise Blood or something, keep it hidden from her husband and for us to not know whether it is really there or not. That type of thing is where I would naturally go and I wouldn’t wait so long to get there. However, because we were basing it on what Stuart had impressed us with, the abductee interviews, we tried to keep everything like that. This is like the neo-religion of the millennium, this whole alien thing. You can not argue with that I think. So this is really being ingrained in our subconscious, so going to the gospels of it, the interviews with the actual people, this is what they say. So let’s tell a story that is true to that and rarely deviates from that. And the only difference is that we’ll interpret it. So I tried to interpret it in a way that made it less a science fiction story. For example we don’t see a big ship out there. Because it is hard for me to buy that, it becomes too literal. Where on the other hand if you take a movie like Solaris …

DT: Now you’ve mentioned my idol, Andrei Tarkovsky!

Brian: Well there’s a lot of Solaris camerawork in Progeny . Because that’s one of the movies we watched with the DP for this movie, along with Stalker , Mirror , Nostalghia . Everything except Andrei Rublev , which was way too epic for us. The space stuff was directly lifted from Solaris . We gave it a swirl and a black hole but the point of it was to make it, just as Tarkovsky did, science fiction in psychological terms. Which in a way is what we were doing here, science fiction in psychological terms with a little sprinkling of horror. That makes it consciousness. All of a sudden you are in a different world. If we had a metal ship up there the movie would have been totally different. And quite frankly that’s one of the problems I had with something like Fire in the Sky . When it got to looking really “Star Warish” it wasn’t enough of a hall of mirrors, ambiguous enough to take into account the contradictions in the stories themselves. These abductee stories are full of contradictions: “I floated through solid matter.” That’s a contradiction. What does this mean about the aliens? If they can do that, what are they doing in a metal ship? Also when we went up there I tried to keep it very ambiguous. When she starts out she’s just in this vague place and all of a sudden she finds she’s lying down. We had to keep the aliens looking enough like these grey aliens to satisfy the gospel. Of course if we were in Sweden they would be seeing these tall blond guys. Did you know that different parts of the world see different types of aliens? And in Europe they often see these tall blondes. In North America it is always grey. Which is the point I’m making. If you read the material you ask yourself, ok what is real about this, this is ridiculous? But then everyone is writing the same thing. So how does this connect. Are all these people lying? I don’t think they are. So how can you in any way take it serious. We were trying to take it serious, we weren’t trying to make fun of it. And we did have to give it enough punch to make it a horror movie, but ultimately we were trying to make the event itself be true to the material. And in being true to the material you can’t have her hiding the fetus. Now all of a sudden you are stuck with this slow story that is all evocative and then you are fighting the genre.

DT: Is that why you have them transform into these wildly tentacled things?

Brian: The reason I did that is because I wanted to interpret what a grey alien was to me. I said, well let’s see, if something told you without words, don’t be afraid it’s only me, then you ask, what color was it. If it was black it is bad, if it is white it is good, if it’s red it is angry, blue it is cool. If it is grey, it is nothing. It is not a color. So when they say it is a grey alien I don’t think they are saying it is that. I think it means they don’t really have a color. It can’t bite you; it can’t suck on you; it can’t eat you. Sort of rubbery limbs, not very threatening, not a lot of backbone. They don’t have genitals. What the abductees all remember is that they are being seen. What I’m interpreting from that is the whole point of it: that you are trying to describe something that you can not describe unless you attach other things to it. In order to dramatize this I wanted to show that as long as she was comfortable with the situation, they looked one way. As she became more hurt, they turned red. As she was turned on sexually they turned blue. It started out white and vague, and then dark and oppressive, and then when she quit playing along, they turned into her nightmare. Well I don’t think the tentacled alien is anymore the way they look than the grey alien. I don’t think that is explicit in the story. I’ve always thought that you shouldn’t be explicit, that this type of thing should be dramatized not explicated. And so if anyone wants to look at it structurally, you can see that interpretation because it is there. But if you listen to Clavell (Brad Douriff), I very specifically had him say that it is a phenomenological mass, which is almost a big joke line. It is such an academic bullshit type line, and the way he says it is just hilarious to me. I almost have to laugh every time I see Arnold after Clavell says that and we get this shot of Arnold and he turns away. I almost want to have this voice-over of him saying, “Say what!” But for the audience, these lines may go past them. But the point is not to beat these things into the ground. The whole point is to give an interpretation that more or less I can accept. Just that idea that, who knows what’s going on. You think she’s lying about it, I don’t know.

DT: What I find interesting is they way the film mixes the element of the horror coming from outside, outer space, and from within, from inside. And then fitting that in with the notion of the family, which is something that you’ve done before in other films.

Brian: Well that was Aubrey’s original idea, that the woman is impregnated by an alien.

Part 3

Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter , Part 2

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