Greg DeLiso is a one of a kind. A film geek filled with cinematic knowledge about mainstream and indie movies, this filmmaker comes preloaded with an indie spirit that drove him to complete his incredibly original exploitation classic, Hectic Knife. Now the film has been released on Blu-ray and digital platforms, so it’s time for a little chat about film history, filmmaking, Troma and, of course, knives.
Be warned. One thing you should know about Greg DeLiso, his enthusiasm is infectious. Which is the best kind of infection to have.
“There’s no such thing as ‘writer’s block,’ you’re just not working hard enough.”
Is there a moment you can identify where you thought to yourself, “I’m going to make movies when I grow up”?
Seeing Jurassic Park in the theater when it came out in the summer of ’93 when I was 5 or 6. I’m a “Spielberg-Kid” all the way. The “making-of” documentary hosted by James Earl Jones that came out on TV later that year was HUGE for me too. I didn’t understand exactly what Spielberg was doing “on set” but it looked like a lot of fun and the result was Jurassic Park, so I knew I had to do THAT. Then when I was 12, I got really into Kubrick, like obsessive. By 13 I was an encyclopedia of American ’70s movies and was already venturing out… But, when I was 15, you know that Kevin Smith story where he says he saw Slacker at the Angelika in Manhattan? The idea was that previously, Kevin Smith was a guy who loved big, Hollywood movies like Batman. But, when he saw Slacker he thought “I could do this!” and then he kind of combined Do the Right Thing and Slacker to make Clerks… Well, when I was 15, I saw Clerks and had the exact same realization! “You mean you only need $20,000 on credit cards and some friends!?” I got to work then.
How should success be measured for an independent filmmaker?
Oh, wow. Um, I guess whether or not they make good movies? I know that’s subjective but what else is there really? Whether or not you make money or reach a wide audience is all about a perfect storm of hard work and luck and circumstance and more hard work and more luck, and success is so relative and personal anyway, right? That’s a tough question, but I think beyond the subjectivity of it, maybe its; where can I see your movies, how often do you work, how many projects do you have going, are you making a living in the field?
When it comes to writing screenplays, would you care to divulge your process? (Wake up at 5AM and write for three hours, dictate scripts into your phone, I mean, how do you do what you do?)
I wish! I’m already awake at 5am because I’m nocturnal and haven’t gone to bed yet. I try to write every day but I’m not disciplined enough and so usually it’s just scraps of ideas for something I’m trying to work on. Pete and I wrote Hectic Knife as we went, week to week. We’d write Wednesday, produce Friday, shoot Monday. We actually did write most of the dialog in HK (haha you can take that as a good or bad thing!?) But, our process was more spontaneous than plotting out the entire thing first and creating a completed script draft. We would walk around our neighborhood (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn) and just talk and laugh. Pete recorded the walking sessions and these became scripts. It was really fun and personal, which I think is most important. Get in a room with someone, find a certain energy and start having fun. Pete would say “shouldn’t he have an annoying roommate?” and then in 10 minutes we’d have the outer sketches of Link’s scenes. Had we sat down and written it from page 1-100, traditionally, I like to think it would’ve come out similarly. It obviously wouldn’t’ve but whether you’re doing it that way or how we did it, I think you need to find that rhythm. Also, my master Jerry Seinfeld has famously said “There’s no such thing as ‘writer’s block,’ you’re just not working hard enough.” Totally agree.
“Editing is fun because you get to put this weird, puzzle together with all these pieces that you designed…”
You’ve worked as a writer, editor and director, which part of the process do you prefer and why?
I like the writing and editing just because those are the two points when the movie is at its most realized. The shooting is like a weird science experiment gone wrong where you’re just trying to make sure that you can get enough to make something still good. It’s really really fun to hang out and goof off and do work and play. But, since being on set is actually lots of real work too it’s more just a process where you ruin everything you had in your head so you can save $. Then you just pray that all the little gum- patches you made in the ship will somehow make it float better than when you designed it!? Because, it won’t be what you envisioned, so you have to just keep trying to shape it to make it be the “right” thing. Editing is fun because you get to put this weird, puzzle together with all these pieces that you designed “on set.” Any moment when anything fits together is really fun to watch back over and over and soak in your tiny achievement for five minutes before you move on to the next tedious thing!
Hectic Knife is, well, weird in all the best ways. What inspired the vision for this film?
I love superheroes and villains, I grew up on Indiana Jones and Star Wars where the bad guys were really evil and the good guys had fun. But, Hectic Knife is one of those modern, brooding superheroes, that’s just inexplicably mad and grimacing all the time even though he lives in some weird, movie-reality where he’s OK without really making money but just seems to have unlimited resources. I think all of those modern, brooding-hero tropes and things are really funny and for some reason Pete putting the blond wig on and flailing around with the kitchen knives was the right way to filter the silliness of all of that. When it comes to the bagels, I’m not sure exactly, sometimes Pete and I were just trying to up the ante of weirdness on each other or make each other laugh. Plus it’s kind of a further assault on the audience. After the whole thing assaults them, the climax is the bagels where the movie turns on itself! But, yeah, I love all kinds of movies but I also think they’re silly and so HK is meant as a middle finger to all of the “Hollywood” formulas. It’s meant to be a quasi-parody of all of these big, DC, Marvel movies — like Not Another Teen Movie but without telling anyone explicitly. Because, again, as an Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters-Kid, I also wanted to make a genuine, SuperHero Origin Story! This is as normal as I knew how to do that, haha, I’m sorry!
What have been some of the best reactions to Hectic Knife?
I just feel lucky to have been able to hear anyone in a theater laughing at it. We’ve done a few shows now and so far a lot of the jokes are landing and it feels really good! It’s a dream come true! We have gotten some amazing fan art, and it literally makes me misty that people out there are drawing the characters and whatnot. On IMDB, some guy I’ve never met, saw the movie and wrote this huge, laudatory review and in it he said it felt like “Eraserhead meets Airplane!” And, I’m being totally honest, back in 2010 when we started, those were the exact two movies I thought of in my mind as key, combining influences. So, the fact that some, unknown person out in the ether saw the movie and liked it and got that is amazing to me and I even use it as one of our quotes on the new VHS artwork!
“That little kids head exploding was a huge learning experience…”
Do you enjoy seeing audiences squirm during a particularly violent scene in Hectic Knife?
Haha, I don’t know if they do, they generally laugh! The violence is all pretty silly. I wanted to have a joke scene where all of a sudden the violence became hyper real, but we didn’t have the money to really do it full force. People always think it’s a horror movie, which I’m fine with. But, I’ve had people ask if it’s too scary and things and I tend to laugh, I hope it’s not scary!
What was the most difficult practical effect to pull off?
Oh man! That little kids head exploding was a huge learning experience. I had the idea of; “killing kids in the movie!” (brilliant idea right?) But, it was an homage to Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (the killing a kid idea) and the head explosion is obviously Scanners. But, to do it, I thought we should have a fake head that looked like the kid and then explode that — not realizing that we could just lock the camera down, shoot the kid standing there and then remove him from the frame and then explode a ball of anything in the heads place. So, we got a mold made of this poor kids head and it cost over a thousand bucks, which was like a tenth of our budget at that point, and the whole thing could’ve been way less complicated and cheaper had we not done all the extra work making the mold. And then of course when we finally shot the scene, I only realized in editing that all that extra work to do the mold didn’t matter.
Can you offer advice to other filmmakers about how to cope with the constant rejection that is the entertainment industry?
Just keep making stuff, don’t let it stop you. That’s the only way they can win, if they get you to stop. If you keep getting rejections try to learn from what they’re telling you too, “why don’t people like this,” “why aren’t people watching.”
“How can I achieve what I want to with the resources I have?” Those are the questions I’m always asking myself. BUT, more importantly, think of it like this, if you get rejected, it literally doesn’t matter as long as you keep making things. And, if that’s your goal: to make things — then rejection is like not even a thought. It’s just like, “Okay, but wait till you see this next thing I’m working on…” That should always be your attitude no matter how big or small any rejection.
What was it like to deal with Lloyd Kaufman?
Uncle Lloyd is great! Being in NYC back from 04-11 I met a few friends that had worked for Troma or known Lloyd so it was pretty easy to get his email address. The first thing I did when we finished HK in the Fall of 2015 was email Lloyd. I heard back in like an hour, asking for a screener and a week later an intern sent over a contract for us! It was a like a blur and a dream come true! We shot a short promo video with HK at the Troma office in Queens that year too and I got to talk to Lloyd and work with him. He’s obviously legendary and prolific but he’s also really smart and fun to talk to. And he’s always ready to go all-in when the camera is rolling, great to work with, hilarious and super fun!
Any advice for filmmakers looking to make a deal with Troma Pictures?
People ask me this sometimes and I’m being 100%, totally honest when I say: Send them your movie! They’ll watch it.
“I’m super lucky to not have to have a 9-5 and to be able to make a living off of my craft…”
What advice would you pass along to your fellow filmmakers regarding distribution?
I made this little documentary back in 2011 called Canada’s Best Kept Secret. (thanks for the 3 star review on that by the way, Film Threat!) I found a little distribution company in Quebec and signed with them. They were giving me 70% and they put the trailer on their website and they had me get them master files and a “dialog list” and all this professional sounding stuff together. When I was done all that happened was after two years the trailer had no extra views, I had made zero money, there were no screenings, the movie wasn’t available on Netflix or any other platforms, not even Amazon Prime, and I was about $500 further in the red because of the materials they made me pay for! I assume deals like that are made all the time, and I’m lucky that I just got the rights back after 2 quick years. I’m happy it happened that way because I’m not out too much and I learned an important lesson. When we finished Hectic Knife, we had a trailer on IMDB and it was listed as “almost done” or whatever they say. So, I would get fishing emails from these same kinds of little companies, offering nothing and putting everything on you the filmmakers. This industry is full of con artists that are waiting to jump on small productions like ours. They search IMDB and they try to dazzle you with big promotional budgets and “worldwide distribution.” Most of those outfits are just a website that fronts a con artist trying to get you to give him 10K so he can go sell your movie in LA. BE CAREFUL out there! It’s a tough tough business and when you’re starting you’re young, naive and excited to sign things!
Beyond just the brand recognition, Troma has provided artwork, got Hectic Knife on Amazon Prime, put it on Troma Now (their own streaming service). They have the trailer on YouTube and help where they can with promotion. (And, most importantly, our Blu-ray comes out January 9th! That’s all REAL!) All of that is miles above these bottom of the barrel companies that share either nothing with decent intentions or, literally scummy, con artists just looking to make a buck off of your excitement. Troma provides real security and has opened us up to audiences we couldn’t find on our own! It’s a dream come true. But, be careful out there, I can’t stress it enough.
A close friend is about to make their first independent feature. What are three pieces of advice you give your friend?
I’m being 100% serious here:
1. Finish the movie.
2. Cut ten minutes out of it.
3. You’re finished, show people and repeat.
Once you’re at step 3, already be thinking of your next project while showing people your last.
What do you hope audiences take away from Hectic Knife?
I just want them to laugh. I’m really happy if they “get it,” and whatever that means to them. If people laugh and have fun I’m happy. What’s better than making somebody feel good and making them smile?
How do you make a living as an indie filmmaker? What’s your secret?
I don’t! Haha! Did I just give myself away!? I still don’t make much off of my art but I was fortunate to finally be able to make a good living off of my craft. I never went to college and I never had a back up plan and I truly recommend that to anyone that’s wanting to do this stuff. Back up plans are a HUGE distraction and keep you from being all-in and struggling. I’m super lucky to not have to have a 9-5 and to be able to make a living off of my craft (I run a little video production company in Detroit and serve corporate and municipal clients). It keeps the artistic knives sharp, I’m always shooting and cutting video. I use the same tools for my movies so it’s invaluable.
Thank you so much Chris! This interview is a dream come true for me. As a kid in Shelby TWP, Michigan I used to watch you on FX, reviewing movies. Can’t believe my first feature is coming to BluRay from Troma and we have some love from FILM THREAT!