Okay man, like I said we’re gonna go right back to the start here. How did you first get interested in Charles Manson and the Manson Family, Jim?
Well, you know, just growing up as a child of the late ’60s, early ’70s, I was culturally aware of it. There was the huge impact of the TV film in ’77 or ’79, whenever it came out, Helter Skelter, directed by Tom Gries and starring Steve Railsback. That was very heavy TV. There were only three networks at that time, there were no VCRs. I mean, a TV movie over two nights with big warnings, y’know, “don’t let your children see this,” it was a real taboo sugar-to-the-ant sort of thing. A lot of kids of course did watch it, their parents let them see it, so I caught up on school grounds the next day hearing about it and then the media just never let go of it. Year after year you’d get this or that interview with one of the Manson Family. The idea to do the film sort of culminated with me and Mike King when we saw Geraldo Rivera interview Charles Manson on his 1988 special called “Murder in America.” We just tripped out because he ran circles around Geraldo Rivera, whom we despised anyway. So, y’know, not that we agreed with Charlie Manson (we both chuckle), it just seemed like “why hasn’t anybody really done a good movie about this guy?”
How long did you think the film would take to make?
Well, we started it in the Fall of 1988, we just got xeroxed contracts of all their territories that were sold through Alexander Beck Enterprises for “Deadbeat at Dawn.” We were convinced that were gonna make all this money so we thought, y’know, we can at least get the whole thing in the can. And we just started running into it and we shot probably half the film in the Fall of ’88. Then we found out that Alexander Beck wasn’t quite the great sales rep that we thought and the contracts were not being honored. And horror in video and stuff was just getting glutted at that point, a lot of companies were going out of business. The whole video boom of the early 80s, our timing really sucked. So anyway, we didn’t have the money and it became a piecemeal operation of raising money over the months to get stuff processed and then showing cut footage to potential investors and raising money for more shoots. And it went on like that until 1993, actually, and in the interim I made “My Sweet Satan.” I raised the money and made that thing, basically to use as an investment tool to show to investors so that we had something slicker and more technically accomplished than “Deadbeat at Dawn,” besides the footage of “Charlie.” And “Roadkill” was all we had to show people.
Is “Charlie’s Family” the longest film that’s ever been in gestation that you’re aware of?
Yeah, I think I beat Ken Anger by five years. “Lucifer Rising” took him ten years from what I gather. I dunno, there’s, no, c’mon, I mean, you got documentaries like “27 Up” going on…hell, people are out there making films their entire lives. So that’s a bullshit thing to say. What kind of (chuckling) claim to fame is that anyway? I wanted to make the film in, f*****g, three months.
Okay, listen…so tell me the story of how “Charlie’s Family” finally got completed then.
Ah well…okay. I don’t wanna name names but there was this director from Barcelona, Spain who I signed a contract with. And I moved out here on that belief, that we were going into imminent finish of “Charlie’s Family.” And that was in 1998. He consequently folded that deal. I just kept tossing the line, see who’s gonna bite. And throughout this period I’d been friends with David Gregory, who’d released “My Sweet Satan” and “Roadkill” through his label Exploited in the UK. He was trying to get “Deadbeat” through over there but it was banned (still is – can’t see any reason for it – Graham) and he ended up moving out here and working for Bill Lustig for Anchor Bay. He now works for Bill doing an incredible job making featurettes for Blue Underground’s DVDs. He always was just a great friend. Y’know, he’d come over here, we’d get drunk and talk about things and he was always asking about “Charlie’s Family.” Finally he told me one night that him and his business partner Carl Daft of Blue Underground Limited – that’s their company separate from Bill Lustig’s Blue Underground, the DVD company, were willing to give it a shot. I was skeptical, but we went for it and that was in 2000. They encountered some difficulty in trying to release “Last House on The Left” in the UK uncut and they actually went to court against the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) and the British court systems and fought a helluva good fight and, I think, changed the view of censorship in Britain at least for a long time (censorship is more liberal across here than it used to be a decade ago but there’s still a ways to go – Graham). They’re warriors. That took a year out of the completion (of “Charlie’s Family”) but then they came back and we went into the mix and conforming of the film and the blow-up and we had our premiere on August 19th at the American Cinematheque, the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, and it’s a done deal.
You must have been thrilled at that though Jim, eh?
Oh yeah, it’s just like, just great, y’know?
Were the actors in “Charlie’s Family” all local actors or friends of yours?
Some of them were friends, y’know, Like Marc Pitman gave such a great performance in “Deadbeat at Dawn.”
Was that Bonecrusher?
Yeah, the Bonecrusher, he’s so powerful and people respond so well from his presence on screen. Even though he had blonde hair, which was wrong for the character, but I didn’t want to dye it anyway, so I just thought “f**k it.” He’s Tex Watson. And then just started casting for most of the girls out of the theatre department at Wright State university which is where I studied film. They’ve got a great theatre department, we got a lot of young actors there. At Dahl Roles we found people from community theatre or professional people who were doing local commercials. The newscaster, I mean Jack Wilson (Carl Day), the Geraldo character in the film, the Bill Curtis character, the guy who’s making the documentary, he was actually – and still is – a local anchor for WDTN Channel 2 in Dayton, Ohio. He’s the right guy for the part, I went and talked to him and he agreed to do it and it was beautiful. He actually showed up, I guess, this past weekend at the premiere in Dayton.
How did that go, Jim?
I guess it went smashing. I talked to Mike King on Sunday morning and Leslie Orr (Patty) showed up, Maureen Allisse who played Sadie showed up, (Marc) Pitman was the toast of the town, Nate Pennington who played Shorty was there, Paul Harper, who’s Danny in “Deadbeat,” who plays Terry Melcher’s recording technician in “Charlie’s Family” was there. So I guess it was a real good time and a good screening. I just love that they can see it on the big screen.
I must admit I’m totally stoked to be talking to you like this about this, cos I’ve thought about doing it for so f*****g long.
Well it gives you faith in staying alive, ya know? Wait until we see what’s over the next mountain, it doesn’t have to be perfect right here in the valley, what’s over that next mountain? Get over that next one until you reach the sea.
Have you had any feedback from the actors on the finished film? What do they think of it?
Ummm…I guess everybody is really impressed with the way it came together. It’s a very beautiful blow-up, one of the best I’ve ever seen. The mix is fantastic, it was mixed at Chace Productions in Burbank, we’ve got a 5.1 Surround mix, it’s top-notch. And I think they were kind of flabbergasted, anyway impressed. They’ve had their issues with me, I guess, they haven’t understood how difficult it is to get something like this finished if all the money isn’t in place, but I guess all sins are forgiven now that (chuckling) the finished product is there.
There are elements in “Charlie’s Family” that Hollywood would still frown upon. Have you had any really negative reactions to the film that you know of?
Well, I’m sure there’s been, and I’m sure there’s going to be, but nobody’s told me about ‘em (laughing). You gotta understand there’s three other guys in charge of this film now (laughing) and I’m kept in the dark and that’s fine. You know, so what if somebody actually talks to me on the phone and gives me their reaction to the film…nobody’s had the guts to say “you know, I f*****g hate it” or whatever…everybody that I’ve talked to likes it, so…I’m sure there’s a contingency out there, and it’ll grow, and that’s fine, whatever. Y’know, I don’t (chuckling) care what you f*****g think of the film, I f*****g made the thing, it’s done. It’s like, f*****g…you can not like that fire hydrant over there, well, so what? It’s there, okay, there’s nothing you can f*****g do about it…you can go over and piss on it, it’s still gonna be there…
(Laughing) Do you want people to go and piss on your film, Jim?
Actually I’d rather they wouldn’t, but it’s not gonna do anything though…
Have you been pleased at the reaction to the film?
Yeah, everybody seems to react strongly, and that’s really what it’s about. If you’re repelled you should be, you should be repelled in spots. I mean it depends on how you want to look at it. If you want to look at it as a film, like look at this technical accomplishment, look at it that way. If you want to look at it as what happened to these people, y’know, that’s a whole other trip. I’m just (chuckling in relief) really happy with it, what can I say? No angry VanBebber here…
Yeah, I look upon “Charlie’s Family” as the ultimate American underground film, it’s just so riotously damned good. But did you or the rest of the cast think that you would never finish the film at all?
Oh no, never, nah nah, never y’know. Never ever lost faith in “Charlie’s Family,” that’s probably been the strongest thing. I’ve probably lost faith in a helluva lot of other things that I believed in over the years, y’know, lost faith in this, that and the other thing, but “Charlie’s Family” is always…that’s the reason to wake up in the morning. I hope people appreciate it and I hope it achieves some degree of success. Just having the damned thing done so I’ve got a copy of it just tickles me pink. I needed to finish it so that I could make my next film. Everything else, videos, whatever I do, whatever jobs I take on to keep going, that’s the stuff you lose faith in, y’know (laughs). The core is just…I’ve got things, my path laid out. And as soon as it comes to fruition, lovely – now we can get on with the next thing.
How have you found moving out to Hollywood?
Hollywood is what Hollywood has become. California is a very crowded place, the studios have changed from being run by people like Robert Evans in the late ’60s and early ’70s into corporate committee boards, conglomerate tie-ins. I’m not sure that in the broader sense they make films as much as entertainments, a lot of big things have to translate into videogames and a theme park is even better, and if you can get action figures, okay, you know, so…it is what it is. You gotta accept it, you can’t hate it or love it or whatever, people do both…right now I’m just ambiguous, I just see it as a big machine that I want to find some niche in that will fund some of the films I want to make. That’s not un-doable; it’s just that it’s patience and finding the right people to work with, that’s really just the thing. You can take different paths.
Did you know that there’s a “Fight Club” videogame coming out? (I only mention this because we both really loved the film – Graham)
(In distaste and disinterest) Oh, really, no.
That is f*****g sad, I mean that of all things I would have thought…however, like you said, ultimately you don’t let all the f*****g negative s**t just mire you down, you just put it aside, get on with your own projects and let other people get on with theirs.
You know, for some people on this earth, f*****g…an Adam Sandler film is the greatest thing. And that’s fine, whatever, for me that’s something entirely different, whatever. I’m just actually glad that I made it out here and if I wouldn’t have “Charlie’s Family” wouldn’t be in the pristine stage it is, okay? So it’s worth it right there, and it’s worth playing the game to try and get something bigger off the ground. Hell man, y’know, everybody just relax.
You told me before that John Waters didn’t like the film, I wonder if you could explain that a bit.
(In disbelief) I said he didn’t like it? I never said that, not at all. He saw a work in progress at the 1997 Chicago Underground Film Festival…
I think you said that he didn’t agree with it, that’s right…
The only thing he nitpicked about – and that’s all it was, it was a nitpick, I think he really liked the film – was that he’s campaigning, I think still, and I think righteously, for Leslie Van Houten’s release from prison because she’s not a murderer and she’s gotten the same sentence as all of the rest of them. And really, when you look at the facts, she was goaded into stabbing the corpse of Rosemary LaBianca in the butt post-mortem and she’ll die in prison. You know, we should show some mercy.
You think she was part of the emotional tidal wave that accompanied that case, that she got sucked into it?
Yeah, they all are, I mean you can look at people who are way more heinous…I mean, John f*****g Hinckley, who shot President…who shot a President, okay, President Reagan, has now been granted unaccompanied, I mean no supervision, permission to visit his parents, so he can travel alone. And (chuckling) you know the Secret Service is spending X amount watching his dumb a*s. They’ve really just made a huge example out of the Manson people. Yeah, they deserve to do…I dunno, I’m not a judge, I’m not part of the judicial system, I’m just a filmmaker and I made my piece, basically, as a reaction to the media’s fascination with this case.
Yeah, that comes through.
Y’know, I gotta admit, once I got into the case I found it kind of fascinating myself, so…there you go.
The interview continues in part three of END OF THE FAMILY LINE>>>