“Life is full of contrasts. It can be hell in the morning, and heaven in the afternoon.” – Mark Savage
Can you imagine John Woo – the maestro of ballistic overkill – trading firearms for fireside romance? Or glop-meister David Cronenberg (“The Fly”) directing a children’s film? What about New York’s sensitive-guy jester Woody Allen taking on a “Rambo” re-make?
With each director comes a distinct set of aesthetics – and audience expectations. Just don’t tell this to Mark Savage.
You’ve probably never heard of Savage, the Australian provocateur behind unclassifiable, anything-goes nuggets of cult fodder like “Defenceless,” “Sensitive New Age Killer,” and “The Masturbating Gunman.” Rather than lull us into comfortable relaxation with a predictable filmmaking niche, this fearlessly unconventional talent steers us in directions both unexpected and disorienting.
Looking forward to a lazy day on the beach? Savage might drive you past a coastal sunset to set the mood – before veering off onto a rocky road of brutal beatings, nipple amputations, and zombie resurrections. Anticipating an idealistic, pulpy comic book flick? Savage can serve up a hero obsessed with saving damsels in distress. However, the rescuer’s virtues go hand-in-hand with an inconvenient vice: the compulsive need to pleasure himself during – literally – “ham handed” rescue attempts. And if you’re in the mood for an inspirational rags-to-riches yarn, don’t be surprised if the down-on-his-luck protagonist supplied by Savage is an ineffective hit man too gentle to deal out death.
Look up Mark Savage in the dictionary of cinema, and you’re likely to find a one-word definition: contrast. Few filmmakers in history boast a sensibility so wildly, deliriously varied. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It can all be appreciated,” suggests Savage of the drastically different styles and themes applied to his work. “To me, it’s like life. Life is full of contrasts.”
Conversing from a Los Angeles telephone, Savage speaks with intense, hyper-articulate bursts of audio enthusiasm, wrapped in a comforting Aussie accent. His energized, friendly rapport could be harnessed, marketed, and sold over-the-counter as an effective antidepressant. “I’m more drawn to films that have all of that,” he continues, explaining the extremes of human behavior plumbed in his work, “rather than going, ‘this is just horror.’ And the more humanity you can bring to horror, the wider the audience you get.”
“Defenceless” (2004), his brutal, bloodstained female revenger, visits the merciless torment wrought upon a female environmentalist by depraved realtors. Eventually, this violated nature-lover returns to claim equally remorseless vengeance from beyond the grave. Savage would appear to be drinking from the same bloody well as a young Wes Craven (“Last House on the Left”) or Herschell Gordon Lewis (“Blood Feast”).
Or is he? Neither of those early horror directors would dare shoot their work entirely free of dialogue, as Savage does here. Book ended by scenes of ferocious violence, “Defenceless” also includes an extended middle section shared by the damaged matriarch and a young girl, set on an Australian beach. It’s as pretty, tender, and poetic as a live-action postcard. Again, extreme contrasts become the rule.
“I’ve had people watch ‘Defenceless’ and say to me, ‘I would usually never watch a film this extreme, but I actually enjoyed it because of its humanity,’” recalls Savage. “That’s the greatest compliment I could ever get. The mother of the little girl in the movie said that she would come to a screening. I warned her that it was really extreme. She came and saw it, stuck through the whole thing, and said that she really enjoyed it.
“To me, the whole point of making movies is to show life’s changes. ‘Marauders’ (1986), one of my earlier films, is a very visceral kind of experience that might appeal to a certain type of person. It’s very angry, and I suppose that at the time I made it, I was an angry person.
“But that’s the whole point. As you’re changing as a person, your films should change. Otherwise, there’s no maturity. I can’t just make films like ‘Marauders’ my whole life, because my heart wouldn’t be in it. But I’m always attracted to stuff with fantasy elements, or stuff that’s a bit extreme.”
Extreme is right. And just as viewers of “Defenceless” might feel numbed by the director’s nasty gallery of onscreen mutilations, Savage is becoming numbed to the reality that his movies aren’t for everyone. “The response was very good,” he describes of the film’s recent reception at San Francisco’s 2006 “Hole in the Head” film festival. “There was one walkout, which is expected.”
In addition to freaking out audiences, Mark Savage is a triple-threat talent who produces, writes, and directs. People have lent their assistance here and there, but he’s typically a one-man show. Savage reveals that his movies usually cost under a half-million each, resulting in his need to pinch pennies.
Creativity has proven to be an asset in this department, as well. To finance his low-budget offerings, Savage has moonlighted as a caregiver for disabled adults living in community housing. He’s distributed flyers on Melbourne street-corners. If he’s short on cast-members, the multi-talent will jump in to tackle the required roles. “I’m first through the door in a strip club in ‘Sensitive New Age Killer,’” he reveals. “In ‘The Masturbating Gunman,’ I have a sex scene with a nun. In ‘Fishnet,’ I’m a corpse. There had to be a dead body going into the water in one scene. It was two in the morning, and the actor said it was too cold. So I said that I would do it. It was the worst thing I could possibly do, because I got the flu straight away. It was idiotic, really.”
For 2000’s “Sensitive New Age Killer” (also known as “SNAK”), Savage was lucky enough to cast a leading man who was also a gifted explosives expert. “Paul Moder, the main actor, also did pyro work in ‘SNAK,’” explains Savage with a laugh. “He had a permit to do it, called a ‘bang ticket.’ In one scene shot in a railroad, he stayed overnight to rig up explosives.”
To finance “Marauders,” his first feature-length film, Savage persuaded his employer – the owner of a video production studio – to loan out equipment in return for a cut of the back end. “I went to the guy who was running the place,” the thrifty filmmaker explains, “and said, ‘your equipment, which is worth a lot, is not being used. It’s a crying shame, because it’s a depreciating asset.’ I told him I could take it out on the weekends, make a feature film, and give him half the money. That’s basically how I funded ‘Marauders.’ The only thing we had to add in terms of expenses was film stock.”
Meanwhile, he allowed the producers of the film, and their relatives, to appear as cast members. “I cast mostly friends that had worked in a few films locally. But if you look at the credits, all of the producers are also in the movie. In order to be the producer, you had help finance the film, and agree to a screen test. The ones that were good also came on as cast members.”
Due in no small part to Savage’s creative ability to do more with less, “Marauders” was produced for under $15,000 dollars.
During “The Masturbating Gunman” (released domestically in 1999 with the even more absurd title, “Masked Avenger Versus Ultra-Villain in the Lair of the Naked Bikini”), Savage suffered losses that transcended the financial. “I was married to a good woman for fifteen years,” he laments. “It fell apart at the end, but she stuck by me for a long time. I told her I wanted to get enough films up so that I had the credibility to make a bigger-budget movie. That was my line to her for quite a long time. Eventually, it was wearing on her. And she could feel a biological clock ticking, certainly. She just felt like she wanted to move on. She and I are still very good friends. She’s a lovely person. It was a shame, really, that we had to break up. She thought that making the film was a folly. She couldn’t believe I was spending a year of our lives making a film called ‘The Masturbating Gunman.’ That became the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Rather than drink himself into inactive limbo, however, Savage used his marital loss and discord to fuel “SNAK,” a bizarre, balls-out shoot ‘em up. Initially titled “Hit Man’s Hero,” “SNAK” concerns an aspiring hit man with a problem. During his youth, would-be killer Paul Morris (low-budget Australian mainstay Paul Moder) idolized a shady neighborhood assassin known as The Snake. Sporting a moustache and trench coat, this trigger-happy idol brandishes both gun and stethoscope. (Like most of Savage’s onscreen characters, The Snake is obsessed with a creepy fetish – in this case, a compulsion to hear the fading heartbeat of his dying victims.)
Paul, however, makes a lousy killer. His guns jam up. A weasely sidekick tips off Paul’s targets before they can be filled with lead. According to Savage, the film’s conflict mirrored his own struggle to balance duty to family with the hypnotic pull of filmmaking. It might be a whacked-out actioner with enough OCD-stricken sad sacks to fill a psychiatrist’s waiting room. But “SNAK” is also autobiographical.
“What Paul says to his wife in the film about having ‘one big hit,’ was kind of like what I was saying to my wife. The original draft of the script was very heavy on the personal stuff,” reveals Savage. “Through the subsequent draft, I said to myself, ‘S**t. This is gonna be a real bummer for people.’ It was coming across as a really hardcore marriage breakup movie. So I shifted gears. The emphasis became more on the hit man stuff, and the action, while still containing the personal struggles.”
“The Masturbating Gunman” also reeks of past history – but not in the perverted sense that one might imagine. Savage makes no claim to sharing the habits of his pistol-slinging subject. But he does relate to the character’s duality. “It has a theme very similar to all of my films,” he clarifies, “which is basically about one person doing something, but also being another person, in a sense. He’s actually a really, genuinely nice guy, but he’s also got this obsession. It kind of reminds me of myself, in the sense that people tell me because I make these weird types of movies, I must be some sort of pervert.
“I’ve also made two erotic thrillers,” he proclaims with a sheepish laugh. “When you make erotic thrillers, it’s difficult to attract certain types of women. I tend to gravitate towards straight-laced, regular kinds of girls. But girls think that you’re like your movies. But I always say to them, ‘Don’t assume that.’ Because that’s like saying that Stephen King must go around killing people, because of what he writes about.”
There are other reasons Savage is reluctant to wade into the soft-core pool. “‘Trail of Passion,’ another such film, was a good experience from a technical point of view,” he reflects. “But also very frustrating, because it was very formulaic. I had eight sex scenes that had to be between three and five minutes. The film had to be 88 minutes long. It couldn’t have any violence, but needed a crime story. It was very restrictive to make.
“I wouldn’t want to make anything else that formulaic again. Because then you start working in a drum. I love working with the actors. But then, you get up to a dramatic point, and go, ‘Shoot – now I have to do another sex scene.’ Certainly, I was happy with the look of it, but we were always kind of handicapped, by being stuck with a formula.”
Alongside his energized wordplay, Savage wields an encyclopedic knowledge of films. Blockbuster films. Bombs. Epics. No-budget exploitation. Call him a geek, and he’d probably find it a compliment. After all, the same could be said of legendary, motor-mouthed peers like Scorsese and Tarantino.
“I’ve always been into film in a really big way,” he gleefully admits. “Even if I hadn’t made films, I would still be a huge fan. I’ve been a film fanatic from a very, very early age. The films that really influenced me were ‘House of Wax,’ ‘The Slime People,’ and a Larry Buchanan film called ‘It’s Alive.’ Also, ‘The Terror from Beyond Space,’ and ‘Valley of Gwangi.’ Those were films that made me think to myself, “That’s what I want to do.”
Predictably, Savage does more than direct features. He’s shot corporate shorts and industrial clips, helmed documentaries on Jackie Chan, and written commentary for film boxes and magazines. In fact, his unbridled enthusiasm for “Blue Murder,” a grit-encrusted, made-for-television cop miniseries, led Savage to a U.S. soul mate – Subversive Cinema’s Norm Hill. Referred to Hill as a rabid fan of “Blue Murder,” which Subversive planned to release in a lavish DVD package, Savage was assigned to write sleeve notes and film special features. Then, an ironic twist of fate took over.
“I met Norm through a friend of mine,” explains Savage, “who is also an actor and huge film fan. His name is Anthony Thorn. He’s the guy who gets his penis sawed off in ‘Defenceless.’ Anthony, who is also from Australia, contacted me at one point, and referred me to Norm, saying he was doing up ‘Blue Murder’ on DVD. About a week later, Norm and I started talking. Norm worked out a budget, and asked if I would be interested in doing the ‘Blue Murder’ extras.
“Norm and I really hit it off. We both like the same kinds of films, and both have pretty wide knowledge of eclectic movies, like spaghetti westerns. We’re both fans of Leone and Herzog. We just got along really well.
“At first I didn’t even tell him about my movies. I don’t think he even really knew about them. I didn’t even want to bring them up. At one point, he called me up, saying he had looked me up on the Internet Movie Database and noticed that I had done quite a few films. He asked me to send them. The first thing he did was watch ‘Defenceless.’ He called me up really late, and said he had just watched the film and was shaking.”
The culmination of this creative, friendly fusion is “Savage Sinema,” a soon-to-be-released box set of the director’s material. In addition to including most of his feature films, the collection boasts old Super 8 shorts. Also attached to this Subversive Cinema release is “Beyond the Pale,” a collection of gonzoid explicit-horror lunacy. “It hasn’t been seen by too many people,” admits Savage with a nervous chuckle. “It’s pretty extreme.”
The director is no stranger to adversity in his native country, where “pretty extreme” translates to “not interested.” According Savage, the Bay Area walkout at “Hole in the Head” doesn’t hold a candle to the rather hostile reception his films have received Down Under. “In a way, I feel ashamed that the Australian film industry hasn’t focused more on genre films,” he laments. “Even though I’ve made my own films there, I’ve been treated a bit like a pariah.
“That’s also one of the reasons that I’ve moved to the States. Most Australian films get a lot of government funding, but people treat me like I make porn films. I figured I would be somewhere where at least people have respect for genre films.”
In spite of recent success stories like the horror hit “Wolf Creek,” Savage claims that the myth of a new wave of Australian cinema is unfounded. “‘Wolf Creek’ got some government funding,” he admits. “But initially, they didn’t want to touch it. Now, of course, they’re all going, ‘Yeah – it’s great!’ But there’s never really been any respect for genre pictures.
“Even with ‘Mad Max,’ George Miller couldn’t get any government funding. That was all private investors. Even ‘Crocodile Dundee’ couldn’t get government funding! People think there’s some kind of renaissance of Australian films, but that’s not really true.
“You’ve really gotta go hard in Australia. Audiences don’t seem to be that accepting of genre films, which they perceive as American. They think of Australians as making social types of films like ‘Somersault,’ or quirky comedies like ‘The Castle’ and ‘The Dish.’ People have a hard time accepting genre films, even though there have been some successful ones, like ‘Mad Max.’ I do as much publicity as I can. Some distributors won’t look at my films. It’s depressing.”
With the box set compilation wrapping up, and a new continent’s worth of festivals, distributors, and audiences to explore, Savage is currently more optimistic. As for future projects, the sky’s the limit. “ I hope it’s the right time to be in the States,” he enthuses. “I still don’t know that many people, but if you do stuff that’s meaty for actors, then you attract good actors to it.”
As Savage wraps up his lively conversation, speculating on the genre he’d like to tackle next, the spectre of extreme contrasts once again rears its head. “I’m interested in anything from crime to horror. But what I’d really like to do is a children’s movie.”
A chuckle emanates from the phone. “People can’t believe I would be into it. But I would kill to do a film like ‘Fly Away Home.’”