Even though Austin is home to some of the world's most passionate fans of genre filmmaking, this year's South by Southwest featured a relatively modest slate of horror, sci-fi and fantasy material. Thankfully, however, SXSW programmers included a one-stop-shop for virtually any kind of genre fan, a documentary entitled American Grindhouse, to fill in the gaps between monster movies, smut, and all-around exploitation filth that was otherwise absent from the festival schedule. Directed by Elijah Drenner, the documentary utilizes interviews with genre luminaries including Joe Dante, John Landis, David Hess, Herschel Gordon Lewis, and many others to take a long and detailed look back at the history of exploitation cinema, from its earliest days to its triumphant resurgence in the last decade.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Drenner for a conversation about the opportunities and challenges of chronicling the rich, varied history of grindhouse cinema. In addition to talking about finding the film's narrative structure, Drenner reflected on a few of American Grindhouse's more surprising revelations, and offered his thoughts about the legacy and lasting artistic merit of grindhouse films and filmmakers. Check out our conversation after the jump.
What was the original impetus to make American Grindhouse, and what was the process you went through to figure out how it would be structured – not just where you wanted to start and finish, but the way you wanted to interject the stuff in between?
Well, it started off as a documentary about Jack Hill, just Jack Hill, and I could never get any financing for it. So eventually that failed idea turned into American Grindhouse plus doing a documentary about just his first film, Spider Baby. When I was going around pitching American Grindhouse, that was when [Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez'] Grindhouse was getting ready to come out, and then it tanked [laughs]. I thought it would be harder, but it wasn't; there was still this mystery around grindhouse [cinema] that's still there. It's still really vague, so I don't really try to answer what grindhouse is, but I just try to capitalize on that mystery of what grindhouse is and give them a little bit of education. But when you decide you want to educate somebody, you realize – or at least I realized – that you need to educate yourself a lot more, and as I started watching more and more movies, I started to realize it's all the same stuff, just at a different caliber, and everybody was saying the same things. Everybody that we were interviewing was saying the same things, and it would be negligent of me to not listen to them. Bill Lustig, Joe Dante, Eddie Muller, they probably know more than I do, and they know more than most of the people who would watch this documentary, so I should really use their words as the foundation for this documentary. There could be criticism of including this or not including that, but if that spurs someone to go and discover more about Roberta Findlay, that's what it should do. Frankly, just doing a documentary about people talking about their grindhouse experiences is boring and would not last very long. So I thought the story of the history of exploitation and its migration in and out and around social acceptance was what we decided to do.
How specific could you be about each subgenre, if you wanted to provide an overview of the phenomenon?
We just started to look at what was the most relevant and what always could be looped back, and whatever could be looped back to early cinema, we did it. Something like Wild Angels [was] trying to capitalize on The Wild One in the 1950s, and then even sooner, you had Wild Boys of The Road in the ‘30s, and they were all about juvenile delinquency. But it's not fun for me to tell you everything; you can make your own decisions and come to your own conclusions. In some way, it's a best-of clips and in some way it's an idiot's guide to exploitation, but it's an 80-minute film school and that's all I wanted to do.
Who gave you the most surprising insights about grindhouse cinema as you interviewed them?
It was probably John Landis because we kind of went in phases doing interviews, and I always knew that if we were going to talk to Herschel Gordon Lewis and Ted V. Mikaels, we needed to have some kind of contemporary filmmaker – and John Landis' interview was a major turning point. That was when he started bringing up all of these points that just made it so much more entertaining – just put it in a context where it was like, "Man, you're fucking right." Then I went back and tried asking people like Ted Mikaels to see if they could say something to support what he was saying, and they were on different pages. So you've got people who are on different levels, and it's not necessarily who's right, but who can you relate to, and John Landis and Joe Dante are people that you can relate to while you're watching this documentary. And then, there's another level with Robert Forster [as the narrator] who's also very relatable; finding a voice to talk about 100 years of cinema isn't easy, and to talk about Thomas Edison and black exploitation, you can sound like a poseur immediately if you weren't there, but he was there.
How easy was it to vet some of the theories postulated by your interviewees? For example, you analyze the similarities between Psycho and Blood Feast, and one person could have advanced that theory, but their point of view notwithstanding it could be far abreast of the truth.
In the case of comparing Blood Feast to Psycho, it was remarkably easy because it is right there. Even I was like "What the fuck? No – these aren't the same." But actually they are, and that was a thing where Landis and Eddie Muller just said the same thing, and all I had to do was cut them together and distill it and do a little bit of an introduction. That thing was to me remarkably satisfying because I learned something while I was doing it, and it's one thing to talk about it and compare them verbally, but when you actually see that even visually there's a couple of instances where they're similar, to me that's exciting. Had I asked Herschel Gordon Lewis during the interview, it would have been even more interesting. Incidentally I had later asked Herschel about that connection, but it wasn't that interesting; he's like these older filmmakers like Ted V. Mikaels – he's on his own path, and as far as he's concerned, Psycho is black & white and Blood Feast is color, and that's his hook. That's how they were able to outdo Psycho in his head, but the reality is he was just doing the same thing.
Were there any instances in which filmmakers argued they were making something more profound or artistic than history suggests?
In hindsight we like to associate whatever's happening with whatever's going on in the nation at this particular time and "Look at this movie that came out of the resistance to Vietnam!" which I think is just total bullshit. It looks good on a term paper, it really does, and you can see there's something in the air. But I wasn't even going to cover The Last House on the Left just because I thought it had been done to death, and I still think it has, but when we were able to connect the infamous trailer to Herschel Gordon Lewis' trailer, I thought, well, that proves my point again. I would say that even if we were able to interview someone like Dwain Esper who has now since passed, he would say, "It was just about the money." These guys weren't patrons for the arts; they saw an opportunity to make a movie to make some money. Many of them did, and many of them didn't, but fundamentally we go to the movies to be entertained, and when Wes Craven was making The Last House on the Left, it may have been an indirect response for him creatively to the Vietnam War, but that's not what he pitched to the theater owners in Boston. It was like, "Do whatever you want – give me a horror movie with tits and ass and blood and guts," and they did, but that one just seemed to resonate a little bit longer.
Was there anything you specifically wanted to include that you didn't have time to fully explore or fit into the movie?
Ray Dennis Steckler, I would have loved [to include]. He was a person that we interviewed who passed away, and it was really selfish of me to want to include him just because I loved his movies. He lived in Las Vegas, and Ted V. Mikaels lived there, so we could just go across the freeway and interview him, but that was when it was going to be more of a compilation documentary and just show you all of these wacky, wild movies. But as we started to figure out we were going to tell a history of [grindhouse], Ray's movies didn't quite fit, and it's too bad because I would have loved to be able to show people how great I think Ray Dennis Steckler is. Maybe we'll have an opportunity to do something with that material; I did string together a few clips and put them on Youtube. But it was a clusterfuck of an interview because he would talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, but most of all it was Steckler that I wished could have been in the movie.