To many underground filmmakers, Pericles Lewnes is a revelation. Perhaps best well known as the director of the psychedelic horror-comedy classic “Redneck Zombies,” Lewnes has worn many hats in the film arena. Whether it was as Special Effects Coordinator on such films as “Shatter Dead,” “Troma’s War,” and “Toxic Avenger 2 & 3,” or as documentarian of such award-winning films as “Fast Game, Fast Money: The Grifters of New York” and “Fighter,” Lewnes has become known as a jack-of-all trades in the underground film scene. After a long hiatus from feature films, Lewnes has returned to the format with his newest feature “Loop,” a psychedelic, scathing social commentary about the world that we live in after 9/11. Mr. Lewnes was nice enough to answer some questions about his career and his new film “Loop.”
It’s been awhile between your first film, “Redneck Zombies,” and your newest feature, “Loop.” What have you been up to?
A lot of people have been asking me that question. After working in various roles on five features with Troma, I decided to go to L.A. to look for work. I had just turned 30 and I had this idea that I wanted to work with Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures, where so many other directors got their “street cred.” I drove 3,000 miles across the country, with a letter of recommendation from Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman in hand, but when I arrived at the Venice lot, I couldn’t get anyone to give me serious consideration. Corman was not there, and I met with one of his assistants. I had five features at Troma as a special effects coordinator, second unit director, and occasional actor, and they couldn’t care less. I had directed “Redneck Zombies,” but it was being distributed as a censored “R” version by a company who licensed it from Troma, and it was getting hammered because that version contained no gore and almost no zombies. But I’m not even sure anyone there was familiar with ” Redneck Zombies .” Basically, I was looking for $200 a week and a parking spot to do anything. I was even willing to work free for a little while, but I just couldn’t generate any interest in anyone there. Jim Wynorski was around during one of my visits, but I just remember him flailing down a hallway and into his car. There was a lot of chaos at Concorde, but I understood it and I wanted to try and embrace it. But no one would even talk to me.
After trying Concorde, I sort of drifted around for a bit, until I heard about a movie called “Rollerboys,” which was changed to “Prayer of the Rollerboys (PotRB).” I had just about run out of money and I was sleeping in my car, and took a job in the art department working on props. My credit on that movie ended up as just Pericles, which gives you an idea of how “rootless” I felt at that time. I can’t really speak for the production crew because I spent very little time on set, but I was shocked at the lack of enthusiasm in the art department. The guys making this movie were supposedly out on their own after working with Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures. The Production Designer was Thomas Walsh, who just finished “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and he was really cool to work with. He let me pull into the garage we were using as a space to sleep at night. I appreciated that. But I didn’t develop any long lasting relationships from that movie. It was nothing like working for Troma which was like a big dysfunctional family. At Troma each department developed a siege mentality and we would constantly watch each other’s backs.
After “PotRB,” I somehow got a meeting with Dave DeCoteau, whose people asked me if I was willing to work for $25 a week. Really… $25 a week! That whole scene had a strange vibe that made me uncomfortable, so I politely said no. After that, I just headed back East to New York, because financially I was exhausted. I had just enough money for gas to go back. I was driving a Chevy Sprint ER with no air conditioning.
When I returned, my girlfriend, Lisa DeLucia, who is now my wife, helped me score an FX position with Laurel Entertainment on the TV Series “Monsters,” which was a spin-off of “Tales from the Dark Side.” This was great because Laurel was the company that produced Romero (“Martin,” “Creepshow,” “Day of the Dead”) and the series’ Executive Producer was Michael Gornick, an incredibly nice guy, who was Romero’s DP and the Director of “Creepshow 2.” I was “Monsters'” special effects coordinator and I met Dick Smith there, who was the series effects consultant. He was only occasionally present but when he showed up, there was a kind of holy light around him and there was an urge to genuflect. Although he was a legend in his field he was the nicest guy, and I’ll always be happy that I had a chance to work with him.
It was at “Monsters” that I met and worked with Ted Hope who went on to create Good Machine and gave Ang Lee his first shot. I worked on “Pushing Hands” which was Ang Lee’s first movie. Ted now runs This Is That, a production company where he produced “American Splendor.” I think he’s really a brilliant guy, and I hope to run into him again someday.
At “Monsters” I also met Pamela Koffler, who was working in the production office. She is now a partner in Killer Films with Christine Vachone, and produced “One Hour Photo” and “The Notorious Bette Page.”
Eventually, there were some personal issues that called me back to Maryland. Lisa soon joined me and we were married. My partner and “Redneck Zombies” co-producer Ed Bishop was running a video company and we scraped along making regional commercials and music videos. Our biggest music video was “High” by Jimmies Chicken Shack. Ed and my wife Lisa produced it. We shot it with almost no budget and it became a favorite on an MTV show called 120 Minutes and reached number 8 on the MTV2 charts according to Rolling Stone magazine. I later heard that agents were calling the record company to ask for me after that music video, but they never gave out my contact information. It was like I was their best kept secret – the director who would work for very little money. A few months later the record company asked us to produce another low budget video, but they wanted to shoot it underwater!
We actually gave them a reasonable budget for an underwater video, which included the safety measures necessary for such a potentially dangerous set and an ambitious project. But they walked away and looked for someone else to direct. They never did shoot an underwater video, but we never worked with them again either.
It was around that time that I made “Fast Game, Fast Money and the “Fighter” documentaries, although there was some time in between them. “Fast Game, Fast Money” went on to win a slew of festival awards, and “Fighter” sat on the shelf for a time while we were trying to work out some rights issues. “Fighter” was picked up by an Internet distributer called BHG Entertainment, and is being sold under their Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Classics label.
Eventually, my partner Ed moved out to California. I kept our company alive for a few years, but after Lisa and I bought our first house, I closed the company and went to Washington, D.C. to work. I got a job in broadcast news, and after finishing graduate school, so did Lisa. You could say it was the news industry that financed “Loop,” as well as a short we produced called “Freedom Plaza.”
As Director, Writer, Editor, Actor, and Special Effects Technician, you have a reputation for being a jack-of-all-trades in film. Why is that? Do you like to have your hand on every aspect of production?
The other end of “jack-of-all-trades” is “master of none” and I sometimes wonder if that’s a good description of me.
I REALLY love directing, shooting and writing. Everything else just happens out of necessity. At Troma, I always tried to fill in a gap when the opportunity arose. So when Lloyd Kauffman gave me a small second unit crew, I ran with it. If he needed a second unit Toxic Avenger, I was there. I wrote a couple of scenes in “Toxic 2 & 3.” Lloyd gave opportunity and made allowances to facilitate my growth as a filmmaker, and I am certainly better for it. So I am comfortable just about anywhere when it comes to production. I wouldn’t try to tie into an electrical panel or put anyone at risk with an effect, but I know enough to find people to make things happen where I may have only a slight amount of experience.
As far as my own productions are concerned, I do what I have to do out of necessity. For instance, the lead role in “Loop” was very demanding. There were two guys under consideration for the character of Joseph, but because of the time and commitment involved, they didn’t work out. That was a really scary decision to try to make. On one hand, I didn’t really want to act in my own movie. But on the other hand, if I lost my lead halfway through the movie that could be it, the movie would die. “Loop” was made on pennies and I took the lead role for one reason only – I was absolutely certain that I would show up every day. But it’s not easy directing and acting, especially when you have a small crew. Lots of wild things happened production-wise because I couldn’t always supervise technical issues myself. There were some severe problems that I didn’t even know existed until I got a scene into post. As an actor, I also had a very difficult time trying to concentrate when there were so many technical details flying around my giant skull. If anyone was working with me, they were working for free and I never lost sight of that. I didn’t pass the buck if problems popped up. Ultimately, the responsibility of what ended up on the screen was mine. Fortunately, the talented people who did give me their time were an incredible support.
As far as the need to have my hand on every aspect of production, I can sincerely tell you that I am perhaps the most flexible filmmaker a person can work with. I feel that filmmaking is truly a collaborative art and I can present an idea and attempt to guide it, but I am always cognizant of the talent around me. If an artist trusts me enough to use their skills to realize my vision, then I will utilize those talents. There are filmmakers out there who become downright nasty because they are so possessive of their movie. But I like the fact that a vision I have for a certain sequence of images can ignite the creative flow of another artist. I think of it as my duty as a director to facilitate that flow as long as it does not obscure the original vision. I will say no occasionally, but I have trained myself to pause and consider everything. No matter what, as long as the integrity of the vision of the project of the project is preserved, it’s mine. And ultimately, I will be the person judged on the project, whether positively or negatively. I have the final say, so whether I like it or not, my hands are all over it anyway.
What compelled you to make “Loop”?
I would have to say that at the time the concept of “Loop” developed, I was retired as a filmmaker. It’s hard to explain, but there were a lot of things going on in my life and although I loved the craft and thought about it, I just never thought that I would be making another feature. I had sold my equipment, had a laptop with Sony Vegas and Premiere Pro and that was it. I just wanted to pay the bills and the mortgage. I was working for a news agency in Washington, DC, as an editor. At the DC bureau we took in feeds domestically and from all over the world. The footage would either be raw from the field or a condensation of events from another bureau. I would work with a news producer who would take the raw footage from a domestic story and condense it into a package of “B-Roll” which we then fed out at different times of the day. These packages were fed to a bureau in London, who included it in a number of packages that comprised the “world feeds.” The world feeds were accessible by our domestic and international subscription clients who would in turn create complete packages for their national news programs. The NBC Nightly News would be a good example, but all of the networks and media outlets from all over the world would be creating packages from a pool of footage supplied by my agency and competing agencies.
So all day I would be watching a matrix of news in many contexts on more than twenty monitors. I looked at it as an outsider, almost a voyeur. I could watch something on a feed that would just be mind-boggling — genocide, civil wars, police state crackdowns on protesting citizens, coup d’etat — it was all happening and there would not be even a blip on the American Media’s radar. Even though I became keenly aware of such events, I remained distant.
In “Blue Velvet,” David Lynch begins the movie with an idyllic image of suburban Americana, and then it quickly deteriorates into bizarre chaos, and then moves beneath the very ground to clusters of insects crawling over each other. Pages have been written about that opening but the bottom line is that it reflected that in that particular little town, there was something ugly and uncomfortable beneath the veneer of normalcy.
When I look back, that’s how I see the world on the morning of 9-11. It was a sunny morning and business was going on as usual. I was the only guy on duty as an editor and video intake technician. It began suddenly with the first tower popping up in a single monitor, burning, and then slowly the monitors began to blink on with angles from many positions. Then the second plane hit under perfect photographic conditions. Everything was going live, and I was incredibly busy and stressed. The phones began ringing with false reports of large bombs going off on the National Mall and at the State Department. The Pentagon got hit and sirens were going off everywhere in DC. Streams of screaming emergency and security vehicles were moving non-stop past our building.
It was there that my ability as filmmaker became a curse. I lived in New York for years and I knew the World Trade Center areas from driving a cab when I was out of work. I recognized the images that were being fed from cameramen and live positions. Instantaneously I could stitch the overall scene in my head and it was crushing. I won’t go into details, but there are images that I think of every day from 9-11. I could no longer keep the chaos at arm’s length — it became personal. I worked there non-stop for three days without going home. The military was in the streets, soldiers, howitzers, and Humvees were everywhere.
I began to look at the news patterns and started to see the spin. There was a wave of sincere patriotism about the Afghan war. Then the drumbeat began for Iraq. The tragedy of 9-11 started to become obscured by the need to create an atmosphere that would take advantage of the transformed psychology of our country. I initially supported the Iraq invasion as it was building its momentum, but I could clearly see the spin of different media sources and was puzzled as to why there should be spin at all.
It was just unthinkable for me to believe that 9-11 had become an excuse for us to put skin in the game in Iraq when we were trying root out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; there had to be some connection in my mind as it was just to too incredible to imagine that the leaders of the greatest country in the world were leading us down this path without absolute certainty that there was a connection to 9-11.
Well, I was wrong. Everything that I was seeing unfolding before my eyes became a game of spin and propaganda. I couldn’t believe it. It scared and still scares the s**t out of me. It was like a fuse blew in my head. I felt powerless and my mind became a processing plant of confusion. My world had become very complicated and somehow I had to keep it together. “Loop” is a reflection of that mood, in some ways a national mood that seems to be growing. “Loop” is a very personal movie, but many people tell me they relate to it. The main character’s internal struggle appears to be a journey of self actualization, but it’s not. It’s an unacceptable cycle of hubris and helplessness. He’s passed the point of no return.
The interview continues in Part Two of In the “Loop” with Pericles Lewnes>>>