Terence H. Winkless is in his third decade as a professional filmmaker. Reared on the north shores of Chicago, Winkless made student films at the University of Southern California to prepare for a career in Hollywood. While at USC, he worked on the set and behind the scenes as a musician on his friends John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s legendary student film DARK STAR (with O’Bannon returning the favor as an actor in one of Winkless’ USC films). After graduation, he moved up to working on professional movies, such as H.B. Halicki’s car-crunching drive-in classic GONE IN 60 SECONDS. His first break in Hollywood came when Avco-Embassy hired him to adapt Gary Brandner’s werewolf novel THE HOWLING as a screenplay. Winkless’ script was rewritten by John Sayles, but the Joe Dante film became his first Hollywood credit.
Roger Corman, known throughout the industry for giving young directors their first break (Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich are a few of Corman’s “discoveries”), saw one of Winkless’ student films and hired him to make his directorial debut on THE NEST, a cheeky movie about murderous cockroaches that was rooted in the fun monster movies of the 1950s. Corman then asked Winkless to direct BLOODFIST, a violent martial arts picture shot in the Philippines.
Although Winkless’ distinguished career in independent features and television covers a lot of years and many genres, his first two features are the main subject of our interview. We became acquainted after he responded via blog comment to my review of BLOODFIST. We exchanged emails, and he graciously offered to be interviewed about the film. So, we chatted over Skype for about an hour one January evening. I found the man to be good-humored, blessed with a good memory, often candid, and very patient with this enthusiastic fan. I hope you enjoy reading our chat as much as I enjoyed participating in it.
Q: Before I talk about your films, I have to ask you this question. I won’t believe it unless I hear it from your mouth. Is it true you played one of the Banana Splits?
Q: Now I am incredibly impressed. How did that come about?
A: (Laughing) You are at the right age to be impressed by that.
Q: Yes, I’m a child of the Seventies.
A: You’re revealing your age, and, if I answer, then I’m revealing my age. But I’ll answer anyway. I was in school in Carbondale, Illinois…
Q: Southern Illinois University? I’m a Saluki.
A: Oh, yeah? That’s great! So am I! Always will be.
Q: I didn’t realize that about you.
A: I don’t think that’s anywhere on the Internet. I’ll have to launch that someplace. I was at Carbondale, I drove home [to the north side of Chicago] from school on a Friday. My mom said—my dad, I knew he had been in commercials, but—“he’s been working with Hanna-Barbera, and he’s now an associate producer on this show they’re trying to get off the ground. You and your brothers are gonna fly out to California and try out for it.” We left on Sunday. I packed a bag for three days, and I was in California for thirty years. Because we got the show. We jumped off the airplane, went up to Hollywood, and tried on these suits. It was weird. We immediately gravitated to the suits and the characters that we wound up doing on the show.
Q: Which character were you? You were..?
A: I was the gorilla. You’ve been reading your IMDb.
Q: Well, that’s true.
A: I’ve tried to remove it from there, because that means if I did that show in 1968, I’m older than Methuselah.
Q: No, you were seven when you did that show.
A: I was seven when I did that show, yeah! That’s it.
Q: I don’t want to stay on this for too long, but did you shoot all of those wraparound segments for the entire season at the same time?
A: We shot six weeks, I think, both years. Yeah, full shows, this was show number one through 22 or whatever the hell it was. There was meant to be some continuity within the shows themselves. I don’t know if there really was. You probably saw them in reruns on TBS or something.
Q: Well, no, I’m a child of the Seventies, so I remember them a little bit when I was a kid. I was born in 1967.
A: Even then, they would have been in reruns in the Seventies, because we did it in ’68 and ’69.
Q: I guess you’re right. I think I still saw them on Saturday mornings, but you’re right.
A: (Laughing) I believe that’s possible.
Q: How did you move from there into filmmaking?
A: As it turns out, I applied to go to USC even before we got launched off into the kids show. It’s just luck. SIU had, I think, two film courses when I was there. One of them was Film and Journalism, or something like that. Make a 30-second news story was your assignment in the class. And when I got to USC, there were 150 courses. It was great. So I already knew I wanted to do that before I went to California. I went through the curriculum, which gives you the opportunity to be unemployed.
Q: (Laughing) Right.
A: Which I exploited faithfully. I worked as an assistant editor and then an editor. I would write at night. Eventually, we sold something—I always worked with a partner. I did THE HOWLING, and then a couple of years later, I did THE NEST finally as a director.
Q: I really like THE NEST. I think it’s a terrific little monster movie. Was that the first film you directed?
A: Yeah, it was. Julie Corman—Roger Corman’s wife [and THE NEST’s producer]—wanted to use a first-time director, because they were sorta famous for doing that. They got two things out of that. They got somebody cheaper, and they never knew when the next Marty Scorsese would go through the doors [one of Scorsese’s first movies as a director was 1972’s BOXCAR BERTHA, which Roger Corman produced for American International Pictures]. It turned out I wasn’t Marty Scorsese, but I’ve been able to make a living for the past twenty years.
Q: Corman did start your career, and you’re still directing today.
A: Yeah! Absolutely.
Q: How did you hook up with Corman and Concorde [the independent studio Corman started in the 1980s, after he sold his previous studio, New World Pictures]?
A: I had an agent who had a relationship with Julie. I was lucky. He just sent them my short film at the right time, and they said, “Yeah, we think this guy can do it.” It was really between me and another guy, and I showed more enthusiasm for the project than the other guy. For me, this wasn’t just a cockroach movie. This was my cockroach movie, man! I absolutely loved to do it. I didn’t care what it was about.
Q: Did they already have a script by Robert King?
A: Yep, they already had the script. I did a rewrite on it, because I wanted to add some touches. The mayor character [played by Robert Lansing] wasn’t really strong enough, stuff like that, but it was basically there. It was great fun. It was long before the concept of CGI, so trying to get enough cockroaches into the shot to be scary was the big challenge of that movie. I was always picking them up as they ran off set and throwing them back in front of the camera.
Q: How does one wrangle cockroaches?
A: The people who wrangled them had a couple of months of pre-production, maybe only six weeks, but in the world of cockroaches, that’s gotta be an eternity. I thought they were breeding them somewhere in some controlled environment. And then one day I learned—I can’t remember their names, they were a family, a dad and a mom and four or five kids—they would go collect them at night out in Van Nuys. Which explains why they always looked tired. And explained why I would say, “Listen, I need 10,000 cockroaches,” and they would look at me with these baggy eyes and go (moaning), “Uhhhh, can we live with 5,000?” “Well, no. That doesn’t look like anything. I know it’s difficult, but…” And that’s how it came up about, “How is it that you’re breeding them?” “We aren’t breedin’ ‘em, Ter, we go find ‘em!” (Laughing) “One by one out in the Valley.”
Q: So when the cockroaches were on the set, there was no getting them back.
A: That’s pretty much right. We built little walls that did nothing. They snuck around the walls, you know. Your attention is out there where it’s supposed to be with cameras looking, right? And they snuck off by the hundreds around these walls. And for a month—probably years—they had to spray down the studio trying to get rid of the damn things.
Q: I once interviewed Bert I. Gordon, who made EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, and asked him, “How do you train insects to do what you want them to do?” And he said you can’t train them, you just point the camera at them and hope they do what you want.
A: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right. Put some food over here and maybe they’ll sniff it out or whatever the heck they do. And off they go.
Q: Where did you shoot THE NEST? It takes place in a nice little small town. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be New England or on the West Coast.
A: The intention was to be in New England. I’m glad that came across.
Q: One of the characters [played by Lisa Langlois] has come back from Los Angeles, but I wasn’t sure if the small town was on the East Coast or the West Coast.
A: Yeah, the girl had come back to Northport from the West Coast. It was supposed to be Cape Cod or something, but, in fact, of course, it was all shot in Malibu. We did a little bit of second unit stuff up in Oregon. There’s a town on the West Coast called Astoria, Oregon. It has a great lighthouse and a great beautiful coastline. In two days of shooting, we managed to make it look like the East Coast. We went out of our way to avoid palm trees. There’s at least one scene that violates it, because it’s got a little café that clearly has a Spanish roof, but for the most part, we avoided the palm trees and Spanish roofs.
Q: How much of the casting did you do, particularly Robert Lansing?
A: I think he was my idea, actually. He was still sort of big from THE EQUALIZER, but I’d been a fan of his since the TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH TV series in the 1960s. I was there for all of the casting.
Q: Onscreen, Lansing always seemed kind of humorless and cold, but what was he really like?
A: He was not without humor. He wasn’t cold, but he wasn’t the life of the party. (Laughing) He was a more humanized version of the characters he usually played. He was really good to work with. He was always doing stuff, always knew what he wanted to do. He asked me to write him a speech. He noticed that each character in the film had a speech that really defined him or her, and he asked me to write one for him. He noticed the mayor was missing one, in spite of the fact that I had tried to beef up the character. And he was right, so I wrote one for him, and it worked out. Anyway, he was warmer and funnier than the characters he played. There was a moment when the leading lady, Lisa Langlois, had some kind of…she was fighting the cockroaches in some scene, and she had some kind of…wacky moment. A crazy actress moment. And she rushed off to her trailer or something. I looked at Lansing…she said something about not being able to see and her hands couldn’t touch and she lost her sense or something. (Laughing) And I looked at Lansing—it was my first film—and I asked, “Anything like this ever happen to you?” And he looked at me like I’m nuts, like, “Do you think I’ve ever behaved like that girl who just ran off the set behaved? Are you bloody outta your mind, buddy?” (Laughing) “Oh, yeah, right, okay.” But there was a little bit of joke behind his look.
Q: He was an old-school professional, I suppose.
Q: Did he have any problems doing a monster movie?
A: Not at that stage of his career. Not at 10,000 bucks a week. Not that 10,000 bucks a week for a guy of his stature was really a lot of money, not even in 1987, but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t like his career was really flourishing at the time.
Q: I don’t think he ever retired. He kept on acting until he died. [Lansing was still a regular on the syndicated series KUNG FU: THE LEGEND CONTINUES when he passed away from cancer in 1994 at age 66]
A: I think that’s right. I visited him in New York. He had a good life. I think his wife had some money. He was a good guy.
Q: Tell me about shooting at Bronson Caverns.
A: Oh, my God, yeah, we did a big explosion there. In the 1930s—I think it was the ‘30s—there are no caves organic to Griffith Park, which is where you shoot when you shoot a forest in L.A. You go to Griffith Park. Sometimes, you go a little farther up to Angeles Crest National Forest, but if you really wanna be in town and do the 20-minute route, you go up to Bronson Caves.
Q: I’ve probably seen it a thousand times in movies and TV shows.
A: Absolutely. You got the one entrance on one side, and it leads to three offshoots on the other side. You can make it look like anything. Every show that has a cave in it, that’s where you go. Sometimes we bring in extra pieces that are painted the same color as the walls. I used it in a kids picture I did called WHITE WOLVES II, where the girl has to go to the cave following the white wolf that’s gonna lead her to safety. For THE NEST, we built a fence that the girl [Lisa Langlois] goes through. We put something that looked like dynamite in there, and we did a huge explosion at the end. That was fun. That explosion has been recycled I don’t know how many times in other Roger Corman pictures.
Q: I noticed in THE NEST you used the stock shot that’s been in I don’t know how many other Corman pictures where the truck explodes and goes off the bridge.
A: (Laughing) They handed me several explosions and scenes like that and said, “Figure out how you can work these into the movie.” So, it makes sense to me that they’ve taken my live explosion—the one that I did—and worked it into twelve more movies. In fact, I’ve used it in another movie. (Laughing) I knew just where to get it when I set out to do the one where I purloined it. It’s extremely efficient driving only as far as Bronson Caves and shooting there. It’s very easy to get to, there’s good parking. All the things a production manager likes, they’re all available. There’s a good place to put catering that’s always out of the shot. A good place to park the trucks. It’s actually great fun to shoot there.
Q: Did you ever read the novel [by Eli Cantor] that THE NEST is based on?
A: I own the novel, but, to be honest, I’ve never read it.
Q: Did Robert King read it?
A: I think so.
Q: I was curious how close the movie is to the novel.
A: That’s a good question. I should go see if I can find the novel on the shelf in my office, and make that very late comparison. You know, I came into the project a little too late for that. There would have been no point in going back to the novel at the stage I was brought in. Though they gave me a goodly amount of time to prep, I guess because it was my first movie. A couple of months. I think I got in there for the interviewing and the auditioning in March [of 1987], and I think we went into pre-production sometime in the middle of April. We didn’t shoot until—I don’t know—June?
Q: Do you remember seeing the film theatrically in 1988?
A: At the time, Roger’s deal was with MGM, and all of his movies, by contract, had to play in theaters. It was really a video deal, but part of the deal was that they would play in theaters. So he would get…in ’87, there were still drive-ins, so I saw it play at a drive-in. (Laughing) It was great. It was fun. A drive-in movie, if ever there was one.
Q: I was living in Carbondale then, and I think I would have seen it, if it had played there, but it didn’t.
A: It was a select group of theaters that had the pleasure of running a cockroach picture. (Laughing) In February, I think it was. And it was one of those blizzard years.
Q: I think it’s the only movie—that I’ve seen anyway—that has a giant cockroach-man in it.
A: Oh, yeah, that’s probably true, yeah, yeah. (Laughing) Heavily influenced by the Jeff Goldblum movie…what am I trying to remember?
Q: THE FLY?
A: THE FLY, of course. That had just come out and was pretty influential. So we didn’t have any special CG effects, that’s for sure. I’d like to go back and remake THE NEST with CG.
Q: I think the effects—it’s mostly stop-motion, I guess—it looks fine.
A: You know, there isn’t actually any stop-motion. It’s the illusion of stop-motion. When that cat is chasing them around the bottom of the lighthouse, it’s only because we cut to it at the right time or the actors look over their shoulders and then we boom up behind the table and there’s the cat in the foreground. Your mind tells you, “Oh, the thing flew from there to there,” but in fact, it never moved at all. Well, it might have been on a string once. But it sure as hell is not stop-motion. That’s a great compliment, and I thank you for your thinking that it is stop-motion. It means we succeeded.
Q: It’s all animatronics or puppets or..?
A: I don’t think the puppet even moved. (Laughing) No, really. I think it’s just…maybe the whiskers, if you dinged them with your finger, they would bounce. But that was about it. I don’t think it had any moving parts. You might have been able to shove it ahead of the shot into a new position, but I think that was it. There was a different one, which the hair was terrible, and you couldn’t photograph it at all, except in the dark. And then there was a close-up one. I don’t remember them actually moving on their own. I could be wrong about that. It sure as hell didn’t fly across the room, I’ll tell you that. When the sheriff [played by Franc Luz] fights with it, he’s holding it to his chest and wrestling around with it.
Q: That’s kind of a tried-and-true creature-feature method. Did you have a natural affinity for horror films, or was it, “Hey, this is my first film,” so you did it?
A: It was pretty much half-and-half. The short film that I made that got their attention and got me the gig was sort of a horror film. It was the old “the girl’s in the house, and the bad guy’s in the house with her.” Which has been made several times since then. WHEN A STRANGER CALLS was the first one that everybody knows. But back in 1970, I made a version of that, a short film that I sold as a safety film. “Kids, be sure to lock the door.” (Laughter) Pyramid Films sold it for years under that premise. It was sort of a horror film. Not a monster movie, but a horror film. Dan O’Bannon was in that. You know who Dan O’Bannon is?
Q: Yeah. He wrote ALIEN and made RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a terrific film.
A: When Dan learned we were doing that, and there was a nasty bad guy who jumped a girl, he insisted on playing the part. (Laughing) He was at USC when I was.
Q: What’s the name of that film?
A: FOSTER’S RELEASE.
Q: Do you know of any plans to put THE NEST on DVD?
A: You mean it’s not? I think it is.
Q: I’ve never seen it anywhere.
A: I think it is. [In fact, New Horizons released a DVD in 2001, but it’s long out of print.]
Q: Disney probably owns it now.
A: They did for awhile, but they’ve since sold the library back to Corman.
Q: Oh, is that right?
A: They bought it and looked at it. Said, “What the hell did we buy this for? There’s nothing we can use,” and sold it back.
Q: Disney did not do very much with the Corman catalog.
A: No, I don’t know what they thought was in it. Maybe they thought in 500 films, there’s got to be something decent. There’s four films they can put out with a Disney label on it, and that’s about it. (Those four) were all made by Julie, and they were kids pictures about going into the wilderness. I should know. I made one of them. (Laughing)
Q: Yeah, WHITE WOLVES II, right?
A: I’m 98% sure that THE NEST is on DVD. I think somebody gave me a copy at some point. I think it’s a “Roger Corman Classic.” With special new artwork done for it and crap like that.
Q: I’ll have to hunt around and see if I can find a used copy somewhere. It’s probably out of print. I’ve been watching the VHS tape for so long.
A: You’ll find it on the Net. Look around for that Roger Corman Classic Collection. (Laughing)
Q: I’ve got several of those. DEATH RACE 2000 and GRAND THEFT AUTO and…I’ve got a few Roger Corman films on my shelf.
A: (Laughing) You’re a true film fan.
Q: I also want to ask you about your second film, which is how we got acquainted in the first place. BLOODFIST, which was also for Roger Corman. He must have liked THE NEST, right?
A: He liked THE NEST a lot, yeah, yeah. I guess it made him some money, and he thought it worked, which is basically what it comes down to.
Q: I’ve heard that he has a tendency to leave directors alone while they’re shooting. Did you find that to be the case?
A: Absolutely. He likes to look at two or three days of dailies in the beginning, to make sure that you have a handle on what it is you’re doing. And then he really does let you alone. And the more you work for him, the more he leaves you alone. Because he trusts you. I guess I have to say the past tense, because he’s not really doing very much right now.
Q: I’ve also heard that sometimes in post-production, he will go back and reshoot things. Did you have that experience with him?
A: I never had the experience of having reshoots being done, but I did have the experience of being recut radically on two films. I turned in a 93-minute cut on something, and the next thing I knew, it was in video stores at 83 minutes. I thought, “Wait a minute, what the heck?” At least twice. It’s sort of a drag. Because you think, gee, if you wanted ten minutes cut of it, why didn’t you say so? But it’s easier for him if he just gets the director the heck out of the room and does what he wants to do.
Q: I suppose he’s been right more often than not.
A: He has been right more often than not. He did come into THE NEST’s cutting room—and also on BLOODFIST—and say, “Take three frames off of this, take three frames off of this, and so on.” Every time we did it, the film improved. Three-frame cuts. You wouldn’t think that three frames here and there would make that much difference, but it did. It really did. It was a real lesson.
Q: That’s, what, 1/8 of a second?
A: Yeah! But he was right in all cases.
Q: How did you get involved with BLOODFIST?
A: His assistant called me up and said, “Do you want to go to the Philippines and make this movie?” And I said, “When does it start?” And he said, “You leave in ten days.” (Laughing) For three months. I said, “Do I have to tell you right now?” He said, “Oh, no, no, you have time. Tell me tomorrow.” (Laughing) Of course, I took it. Go to the Philippines? Travel to an exotic place like that on somebody else’s nickel? Sure.
Q: Corman made dozens of films in the Philippines.
Q: What was it like for you to shoot there?
A: It was…really difficult. Which paid off, in a way. You know, it’s supposed to be a brutal world that they’re in, right? This kickboxing world. The Philippines is a brutal place to try and survive as a human being. The poverty is unbelievable. People literally live in the junk in the junkyard. And they live…at the harbor, there’s sort of a pier area. And underneath, they found a way to build little cardboard boxes into these little covered areas underneath the pier. It’s like somebody living under Navy Pier (in Chicago). I mean, ahhhh, I don’t know how they survive. So that fact that life everywhere around you was difficult, and we were in downtown Manila, where every single traffic light is eight minutes long, and I think it’s that long so that the beggars can come out and try and sell single cigarettes at a time. And mints. They sell mints and cigarettes to people in the taxis and the driven cars. I think the lights are that long, so the business transactions can take place. For all I know, they sell all sorts of things that way. (Laughing) I would say more, but my daughter’s in the room. (Laughing) Seriously, there’s no middle class there. Every—this is a digression from the film—every second floor of every hotel is a brothel. It’s just a known thing, that’s all. You want a massage? Go to the second floor. The Intercontinental is where they put me up. It’s a world-class hotel, right? Yeah, the second floor is world-class, I’ll tell ya that. (Laughing) Actually, I don’t know. I never visited the second floor.
Q: You heard that though.
A: Yeah, I heard that though. I did. But, as I said, in a way, that led to the film. These guys are supposed to be tough. They’re supposed to be in a tough place. Well, it’s all tough to me. I’m a kid from the north shore of Chicago. So to be in Manila, where every traffic light is forever, and there’s millions—eight million, ten million people, I don’t know, it’s a huge motherfucking city—and it’s hot and it’s dangerous and you never know which government is in power. So it added to the film. (Laughing) Plus, Roger didn’t spend a lot of money. He had a partner, Cirio Santiago [the prolific Filipino filmmaker], who—rest his soul—died recently.
Q: Yeah, just last year. [September 28, 2008, to be exact] He was actually directing another film for Corman when he died.
A: Right, and Jim Wynorski had to go over there and finish it.
Q: I believe Wynorski is cutting it right now.
A: I think I’ve seen footage from it. With Michael Madsen, isn’t that the one?
Q: Yes. ROAD RAIDERS.
A: (Laughing) ROAD RAIDERS, right.
Q: It looks just like the movies Santiago was making 25 years ago.
A: Yeah, yeah. Actually, the part I saw…the stuff that Jim had done looked better than what Cirio had done. But, Cirio smoked like a chimney. I’m not surprised that it got him.
Q: When you were hired, Don “The Dragon” Wilson was probably already in place to star, is that right?
A: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He was the franchise. Before there was a script, I think, there was Don the Dragon.
Q: Do you know how he got involved with Corman? He had done some supporting roles in films, but hadn’t starred in any before BLOODFIST.
A: I don’t know what the linkage was between Roger and Don. I don’t know who made the introduction. But obviously Roger saw the money potential, after having seen the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie [BLOODSPORT, released by Cannon in 1988], and said, “Why don’t we do one of those?” And off he went looking for the real thing. It didn’t matter to him that the guy couldn’t act. What mattered to him was that the guy could lift his foot over his head and kick people in the face with it. In fact, I had just made THE NEST, right? With moving the cat around through the illusion of the camera and all of that stuff. So when I got there and I had these guys, who I could say, “Okay, can you fight now?” And all of a sudden, these windup toys go into this stuff, and you go, “Oh, my God, I don’t have to do this all with the camera? I can just sort of photograph what they do? This is great!” And Don was great. I mean, he could hit anything. He was amazingly accurate. He had a special move where he could stand on one foot and just whack a guy’s face this side and that side like crazy. It was no wonder he was a world champion. It all shows.
Q: You had Don Wilson, who was a kickboxing champion. But you also had all these other guys. You had Billy Blanks, and you had Kris Aguilar. I mean, all these guys…
A: I also had Rob Kamen, who I was told, in his spare time, was a bank robber. (Laughing) But he wasn’t a kickboxer. He was a bank robber. Which, you know, looking back, it makes sense. Kickboxer/bank robber, you know. What, did he have time to go to college? Hell, no. And he was always smiling. Rob was always smiling. Very nice guy. And why not? He was making a living, you know, kicking butt. (Laughing) Billy Blanks was the luckiest casting of all time. He was over in Manila being Catherine Bach’s bodyguard [Bach played Daisy Duke on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD]. Somehow or other—Billy’s not a guy who would go to a disco—somehow or other—I guess she was there—but I happened to meet him in a disco in the hotel. “What are you doing here?” “What are you doing here?” ‘Cause it’s unusual to run into Americans there. And his eyes just lit up at the fact that one of the kickboxers hadn’t been cast yet. He just couldn’t believe it when I said—without thinking twice, you know, here’s this gigantic guy built like a brick wall. And I didn’t care if he could act or not. Clearly, the point champion of the world was gonna look great. And arms the size of—just massive arms. I just gave him the part on the spot. He didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until he was on the set actually doing it that he believed he was going to be in the movie. (Laughing) It was nice, because most people are kinda cynical about it. He wasn’t, and he was a very nice guy to work with.
Q: With all of these real-life champions on the set—and all of them have to lose at some point, except Don, of course—did these champions have trouble losing fights, even though they were make-believe fights?
A: No, not at all. Nobody gave me any attitude at all. They could tell the difference between what they did for a living and the fantasy of this, absolutely. And they were willing to pull their punches and miss, as necessary. In Rob Kamen’s case, he was supposed to be listening to music through his Walkman or something. In the story, they switch the tape on him, and he’s listening to something else. Which is pretty silly, when you get right down to it, but he played along with it. He was an actor more than he was a kickboxer during the making of that movie.
Q: I’m not surprised that Wilson has had a long career, because there’s something about him—like Chuck Norris—where he comes off the screen as a nice guy, and you want to watch his movies.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s likable. Not a great actor, for sure, but he’s likable and watchable. He was the world’s quickest study (when it came to acting). You showed him something once, and it was there. You never needed to go there again.
Q: If you’ve seen as many movies made in the Philippines as I have, you’ve seen these two actors again and again. Both are in BLOODFIST. Vic Diaz [who plays the police chief] and Joe Mari Avellana [Wilson’s trainer].
A: When you go to the Philippines, and you need an actor who’s 45 and speaks really good English, you went with Joe Mari Avellana. Vic Diaz was one of Roger’s favorite actors. He’s completely convincing. When he turns on that cop thing, it’s right there.
Q: Did you get the impression that those two were legends in the Philippines?
A: I wasn’t really that aware of it. Joe certainly had the respect of the crew. They admired him. That was clear. He was an excellent liaison between us Americans and the Filipinos. Not that there was anything to liaise about. We never really had any problems.
Q: Around the time BLOODFIST came out (in 1989), there was the BLOODSPORT movies, the KICKBOXER movies, the BEST OF THE BEST movies…
A: Certainly, BLOODFIST was influenced by BLOODSPORT. I don’t think BLOODFIST would have existed without BLOODSPORT. The draft I first read, which never actually got changed, again by [THE NEST screenwriter] Robert King, was set in Hong Kong. Apparently, there’s a temple at the top of some hill, and a scene was written for the characters to have to run up these stairs to the top of the temple. This was in the draft that came to me. And I’ve got ten days before I go to the Philippines. So I ask, “Does this temple exist in the Philippines?” And everybody goes, “We don’t know. You’ll figure it out.” (Laughing) So I did. I got there and went, “Oh, there’s a volcano over there? We can go there? That’ll be a good replacement for this temple.” It was great to get out of Manila. There’s nothing like shooting on a volcano to get your blood goin’. Especially since it was a live volcano, and as you walked up it, you had to be careful where you stepped. Otherwise, you’d fall through the dirt and into the molten lava. Only two feet under your feet. It was really a trip.
Q: How much of directing would you say is basic problem-solving?
A: I guess, really, about half of it. Half of it is creative. You gotta have a vision of what it is you are after. When that isn’t available, you have to figure out how to get as close to it as you can. And do it in the time allotted. So, you know, yeah, sure, 50%.
Q: I guess when somebody says, “We need a temple,” and you’ve got ten days to find a temple…
A: Well, I had more than that. I knew before I got on the plane that I was gonna have to figure that out. And then when they started filling me in on what was available here and there, I was able to plug “volcano” into “temple” pretty easily.
Q: Were you asked to make BLOODFIST II?
A: No. I had moved on to the next kind of movie by then. I think I was already hard at work on a comedy I did next [CORPORATE AFFAIRS, another Corman movie with Peter Scolari and Mary Crosby]. Shooting in the Philippines…you know, you heard before you got there that APOCALYPSE NOW had been done there. A crew would be available from that film, stuff like that. So you go over there with that illusion in your head. I remember we asked for HMIs [a type of camera], which have to have the right motors that will always run at 24 frames (per second)…crystal sync motors. I remember asking on the location, “Do you have the crystal sync?” “Oh, yes, we have the crystal sync.” And then we get there on the day—and this is just the way it was all the time there—we get there on the day and we ask for the crystal sync. “We don’t have it.” “But we asked you specifically, ‘Do you have the crystal sync?” And the guy says, “Well, we have it in the Philippines.” (Laughing) “We don’t have it here.” You go, “Ohhhh, God.” The whole Chinese thing about saving face and not being embarrassed—all of that crap—that half of the culture comes out. There are things that happen I could not have foreseen, like that happening. You can’t anticipate certain things like that, right? You think you’ve asked the question, and, oh, no, no, you didn’t ask it entirely. (Laughing) “Will it be there on the day at the precise hour?”
Q: What’s your favorite film of those you’ve directed?
A: Probably a thing called…we made it under the name SCENE OF THE CRIME, but it got changed to LADYKILLER—which I think is a terrible title—with Ben Gazzara and Alex McArthur about a cop and an actor who solve a series of crimes. It’s not the best script in the world, but Ben was a trip to work with. Alex was a real treat to work with. I got to do some things creatively that I was real happy with. That was a while ago now, but, yes, that’s my answer to that question.
Q: How important is a good title to a movie? I think BLOODFIST is a terrific title.
A: That’s a distributor question, not a director question. The director doesn’t care what the heck it’s called.
Q: Really? It doesn’t matter to you what the movie is called?
A: Well, I want everybody to see it. But I presume it’s the way it’s executed and the artistic vision that’s visited upon it and all of that crap, rather than just the title. At least from a director’s point of view. From a producer’s point of view—and I’ve been a producer now—I think titles are very important. I mean, you gotta sell the damn thing. It doesn’t matter how good it is, if people don’t buy it based on, “the title sucks.” On the other hand, SCENE OF THE CRIME, I think, is a better title than LADYKILLER is. I don’t know why it changed. Roger used to—pretty unscientifically, if you ask me—his offices are in Brentwood, and not a very busy section of Brentwood. He would send a production assistant or an intern out with a clipboard and ask people, “Which of these four or five titles do you think is the best?” The only place available around there is a mall—not even a mall mall, just a little fancy L-shaped mall where rich people go—a health food store and a deli, not much. And they would base their title approach based on what people in this mall said. It used to drive me nuts. (Laughing) At least go to UCLA, which is only a mile from where they were. Of course, you’d have to pay for parking over there. (Laughing)
Q: Maybe you just figured out why it worked that way! (Laughing) You know, Corman used to put out movies with one title, and if it didn’t work, he’d pull it back in and re-release it with a new title.
A: I guess he thought titles were really important. That goes back to the Disney question. Disney thought they bought 500 movies. They really had 400. (Laughing)