Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” arm continues to release some of the most awesomely obscure and beloved horror titles ever and this coming Tuesday February 19 is no exception. Terence Winkless’ cult cockroach classic The Nest finally gets the high-definition treatment in the form of an excellent Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack that features a commentary track from the director himself. Tasked with making a film about man-eating cockroaches, Winkless makes what is easily the very best (and probably the only) film about killer cockroaches ever made. It’s a horror fan’s dream come true. That is, if your dreams consist of a terrifying Man-Roach and a healthy dose of gore. Here at FEARnet, that’s all we dream about.
FEARnet sat down with Winkless to discuss working with Roger Corman, wrangling cockroaches in the middle of the night, and the infamous Cat-Roach.
FEARnet: I just re-watched The Nest again the other night and it holds up really well. They don’t really make creature features like that anymore.
Terence Winkless: No, it was really sort of an in-between time. CGI hadn’t blossomed yet and Roger has always been (and still is) in favor of putting a guy in a suit and having him chase people around. He really believes in guys in suits.
Later on, in working for him, he wanted to do a thing called Cyclops (which he did end up doing but, for a while, he was going to do it with me) and he said, “We’ll put a guy in a suit.” And I tried to talk him out of this. I said, “You know, they’ve got this thing called CG and we’ve used it plenty…” No. He wanted a stunt man in a suit and he’d be made bigger by putting some contraption on his shoulders. We’d build a fake eye and head, which would be operated by puppetry. And he wanted to make it for half as much as they finally made it. It was just impossible.
Anyway, that’s not about The Nest except that in The Nest the final monster – the final ridiculous monster – in the cave built of all the other victims is a guy in a suit, of course. No no, wait. It wasn’t a guy in a suit. In spite of all that, it wasn’t a guy in a suit. It was a puppet! I think Roger hated that thing so much he went back to wanting guys in suits.
What about the Man-Roach towards the end of the film? Was that a man in a suit?
That was a combination of an actor being willing to have a thing put on his chest so that when the sweater is ripped it reveals this gory, gooey, buggy mess. So that was a real guy and then we went to super close ups.
Actually, second unit thought they were doing me a favor and shot close ups of eyes and teeth coming out, but I had to redo it in pickups because it was too much of a medium shot. You could tell that it wasn’t real. When you got real tight on something, you only get the clues of what the brain can put together of what you’re looking at.
When we did that and just went ridiculously macro lens tight on the eyes as they got pushed out, it looked a thousand times more real than the medium shot that the guys had done. Same with the mandibles that came out of his mouth.
When you cut to the wider shot of the sort of walking beastie that they built, these things didn’t walk for beans! To get them to move it took three guys and you had to frame them out of the shot to get the thing to move at all.
My favorite shot is when the eyeball pops out and he steps on it.
Oh, well, thank you. That was not in the script and it’s actually one of my favorite moments too. [Laughs]
I have to think that writing The Howling had to help in landing this gig. How did you get involved in The Nest?
You know, there was no real direct correlation. There’s some peripheral correlation.
It was as simple as my agent finally gave my short film to Julie Corman, Roger’s wife, the producer of The Nest. She actively wanted to give a first-timer a shot, which they’re famous for doing, and she wanted to be the one this time to do it.
It was between me and another guy, and I simply showed more enthusiasm for doing a cockroach movie than the other guy did. He was a little more low-key.
A cockroach movie! I wanted to direct a cockroach movie my whole damn life. Please, let me do this! [Laughs]
The film is based on a novel, but there are so many horror movie touches throughout. I see a lot of Jaws in The Nest, from the island setting to the entomologist that reminds me a bit of Hooper. What were some of the films that you watched that served as inspiration for the film?
Every movie ever made. You know, the big movies that are still influencing us. At the time, even though it was 1987, the big movie was still Jaws. You couldn’t get away from Jaws. It had a huge impact. It, no doubt, spurred the writer to write the book.
What did you learn while making The Nest?
I learned a lot, obviously doing The Nest. The main thing I learned was to break down absolutely every single scene into shots and shot lists because, from that, you can figure out what the blocking should be. There’s an infinite number of places that the camera can go. It’s absolutely endless. There’s no wrong way. But once you choose a way, you have to follow it through, so be careful what you choose.
I still operate the same way. I sit down with a script and I read it just to know what the story is, and it’s not until around the third time that I actually start making shot lists and little pictures. My pictures are terrible. Some directors have these beautiful renditions of what the scene is. Mine are just stick figures. [Laughs]
How difficult was it to deal with these packs of nasty cockroaches that probably nobody wanted to touch?
This is an area of some of my favorite stories. These are some of the stories upon which I dine out.
You would think that if you had eight weeks of pre-production, and then a fairly long production period (we were shooting for twenty-four days), that once you’d hired your cockroach wranglers they’d be breeding these things in a controlled environment. They breed like crazy anyway, right? There’s nothing you can do to stop them.
So, I thought that they had hired somebody who had a barn or a lap or something. Well, I asked the guy one day when he looked kind of sleepy, “Where do you get the cockroaches from? What kind of lap or environment or controlled circumstance are you developing these many thousands of cockroaches?”
He says, “Ha! We just go out to Van Nuys and pick them up off the sidewalk in the middle of the night.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] So they were completely wild, feral cockroaches.
They were completely wild. They didn’t pay a nickel for them, but the kids (this was a whole bloody family) looked exhausted all the time and then I understood why. Well, they’d been out all night.
So when they said, “How many cockroaches do you want tomorrow?” and I said, “Five thousand” their faces would just drop. And I’m thinking, “What’s the big deal? You go to the cockroach factory. There must be zillions of them.” But, no. That wasn’t the case. [Laughs]
I remember, one day, we built these barricades for them. These little two-foot-high things with Vaseline on them. Ha. Ha. Ha. [Laughs]
It did nothing at all. In fact, all it did was get in the way of the rest of us jumping over the barricades to scoop up the cockroaches and throw them back in front of the lens before they escaped, which we did constantly. I constantly was picking up cockroaches and putting them somewhere in the shot.
I remember one day the kid from the cockroach wrangling family was gathering up cockroaches with one hand and, in the other hand, he had an ice cream bar. I kept waiting for him to forget which hand was which. [Laughs] It never happened, but it’s still an image that haunts me.
Speaking of haunting images, the one image from this film that will probably haunt my nightmares until the day I die is the Cat-Roach. That thing is terrifying.
Well, good. They gave me a puppet that could rub its ears and open its mouth, and it just sat there doing that. Then they gave me one that was a still puppet, like something you could put on your desk as a paperweight.
The script says that this thing pursues them around the lighthouse. Oh, fuck. How is it going to pursue them around the lighthouse? [Laughs]
As it turned out, if you do enough coverage and move the camera instead of the cat, you gave the illusion.
My favorite shot in the movie is from that sequence. For me, it was a great moment of discovery of how the camera could make this inanimate object fly around a room. It’s one of my favorite shots in all of my movies.
You didn’t really kill all the cockroaches at the end. You obviously left the film open a little bit. Was there ever any push to do a sequel?
There was a very limited push. The people who worked at New Concorde, who had a surprisingly amount of influence within the company, were encouraged to submit their sequel ideas, but I guess they never got one that made them want to run with it.
You acted in one of my favorite movies as a child – A Cry in the Wild – and then you went on to direct the sequel. How did that happen?
The only reason that I was in A Cry in the Wild was that I had dated Pamela Sue Martin, and Julie Corman knew this and thought it would be amusing to send to the set somebody that Pamela Sue had gone out with. I guess she wanted to embarrass her or maybe she thought some kind of sparks would fly again and it would add to the scene.
Anyway, it was perfectly pleasant. It was great for me. They flew me up to Reno and gave me a car and we went out to this beautiful forest and hung out and had some beers and shot a day. It was great. The AD even turned out to be one of my best friends later on.
What’s next for you? I see you’re directing Heart of Dance. Can you tell me a little about that film?
Heart of Dance is a nice little melodrama about a girl trying to live up to the bucket list, so to speak, of her recently deceased sister who died in an accident. On that list is the idea of becoming a ballet dancer, and this girl is too big. She’s just a big girl. Maybe like you’d find as a plus-size model these days. It’s written by a girl who is that girl but is also a dancer.
It’s sort of a teen angst story, which is particularly attractive to me because I’ve got a teen with angst. I’ve got a fourteen-year-old daughter and it’s okay with me if I can make something that she can stand to watch and maybe learn something from.
I also have another movie that I’m working on getting made that follows in the footsteps of the film Bloodfist that I made. It’s a fight picture starring professional women’s mixed martial arts fighter Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson. It’s called Fight the Power and I’m hoping that all starts to come together soon. It’s getting there.
The Nest arrives on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack on February 19.