Whenever Big Gay Horror Fan needs something cerebral to eat, he naturally heads to the grittiest shower in the local transient hotel. Of course, this is a pastime that the character of Brian in Frank Henenlotter’s gonzo exploitation epic Brain Damage adheres to, as well. But stepping out of the moist and deadly spray for a moment, here the equally epic, truly fascinating Henenlotter continues his exclusive talk with BGHF, offering up fascinating tidbits about working on Brain Damage, the Basket Case series and shooting his latest project in New Orleans.
BGHF: Seeing as this is Big Gay Horror Fan, Frank, we just have to talk about Joseph Gonzalez. He’s got this great character actor face and he made quite a physical impression in Brain Damage!
Frank: He wasn’t an actor. We found him in a gym. In Brain Damage, I needed a scene where Brian needs some food in the flophouse. Where is he gonna met someone? I thought it would be creepy if he went into the shower and there was a guy in the shower. I thought, it’s not gonna work if it is just some guy in the shower. But if it’s a gigantic muscle man, it just makes it more picturesque and absurd. And then once we started playing with this idea, we thought let’s put this little homoerotic feel, this vibe to it. Even though that’s not what it was about, but there was something about it that was kind of like – oh god, two guys together in the shower, why not, you know? So, we went to look for a guy. One of the girls working on the production went into a gym and saw him and asked him if he wanted to be in the film. Sure! I said to him you’re going to be doing nudity. You’ll be naked on the set, but we’re not going to show the front. He said, “I don’t care. Sure!” He was just delightful. So, I thought he’s perfect for Zorro, the pimp in Frankenhooker! I think he got into SAG as a result of that. Then I lost touch with him. I wish I knew where he was because he was another guy that I just had a great time working with. I don’t know why he didn’t do any more movies. Physically, he is exactly what you need in a film. Yes, his acting, at least in my films, was somewhat limited. But, still I thought he pulled off what he needed to for Frankenhooker to work. Frankenhooker didn’t need a master thespian. It just needed a guy who looked like a pimp. I thought he was great in it. Especially with that giant Z medallion (laughs) – a very enjoyable guy to work with. He was very quiet, too. He was nothing like the character.
BGHF: On the other end of the experience spectrum was jazz legend, Annie Ross. An accomplished stage performer, she appeared in a variety films including Superman III and Pump Up the Volume. What was her take on being a part of the Basket Case legacy?
Frank: She always claimed to love it, that’s why she jumped on doing Part 3. I saw her recently and the thing she said to me was, “Why don’t we do Part 4?” She still performs. I guess she’s in her 80’s now, early 80’s, and she performs every Tuesday night at a club in Manhattan. Every time I go, I’ll bring a lot of people there and she is just marvelous! She’s slower, but the voice is still there. She is an absolute delight, she is a delight to listen to singing and she was a delight to work with. She was genuinely a pro. She had made a lot of films, a TV show in England. So, I did almost no directing with her. We talked briefly about the character. She brought all the nuances – she brought all that herself. All I used to do was tell her where I wanted the shot to be and where I thought the mark should be. Usually, she was good on the first take – consistently so. A brilliant actress to work with! In fact in the scene in Basket Case 2 where we put that evangelist outfit on her – she loved that, the one where she does that speech where she works the freaks up into a frenzy. She told me that she had been rehearsing that scene for weeks. She wanted to show me what it was going to be. I said don’t waste your time on that. Let’s just film it! I want to film it in a long take and I want you to hit your own marks. We’ll just be there and get it. But it means we’re probably going to do a lot of takes, unlike what we were usually doing. It was complicated. I wanted the camera moving around the freaks. The first couple of takes were aborted because the camera bumped into a freak or something – you know, there are always those kinds of problems. But that was basically her. Her performance, there, is her! I had nothing to do with it. I just made the camera move. She did it all. Perfect! Then on Basket Case 3 there was a funny moment where she came up to me. Basket Case 3 was basically a disaster. I was re-writing the script as we were going along. Not what you’re supposed to be doing! I wrote this scene where the freaks had to walk from one room to another. And I needed dialogue or otherwise it would have just been a shot of freaks walking. I needed her to say something. So, I wrote this thing and she was someone you could throw dialogue at and she would instantly memorize it. I wrote this scene and for the first time ever she came up to me and said, “Frank, I don’t think I can say this!” I burst out laughing. I said, “Oh, my god, Annie! You starred in Basket Case 2. You can say anything!” She goes, “No, no, no. It’s this word – revel.” The line was “And you, too, shall revel in his beauty!” She was talking about her deformed son. She said, “I’ve never said the word revel. I don’t know how to say it.” So, I paused for a minute and said, “Say it like Vincent Price would say it.” She paused for a minute and went, “Oh! I’ve got it!” (laughs) I’m not even sure that I knew what I meant! Sure enough, when you see the scene, she hits that ‘revel’ like Vincent Price. Now, that’s a pro!
BGHF: I love her! So, do you have one filming experience that stands out then – or do they all blur?
Frank: They all blur. The thing is making movies is hard. It’s not a game – especially on no money. You’re on no money and you are desperately trying to make something watchable. I start with the lowest – let’s see if we can get focus and color and — (laughs) — and then we’ll work up and see if it’s any good. Every one of them has a handful of great moments and a handful of miserable moments. That’s all I can say. Every one of them is like that. Brain Damage was an awful lot of fun to make despite the problems. It was my second film and I really loved filming in 35 millimeter. That was so exciting for me. Even though I didn’t know how to load the camera, you know what I mean? It never occurred to me! “Does anyone here know how to load a 35?!?’ It was better than the 16 I shot Basket Case with because I was always putting it down and then would forget where I left it! So, embarrassingly, once a day I would be asking, “Has anyone seen the camera?!” And everybody’s eyes would roll! I loved filming Bad Biology. I had a great time with that. That was the first one after 15 years. It all came back. It was just so comfortable and I just remember really loving that one! I just shot one – not a horror film – that was half shot in Williamsburg and half shot in New Orleans. That was a trip. That’s half the fun of it. We did know what the hell was going to happen down there, in New Orleans. But that was the fun of it. Let’s go down there and find it. We got lucky. It was just cool. It’s a true story about street art. We needed to find an abandoned building that we could put art on and then also remove it. Where do you find that? How do you do that one? We were looking for real estate and seeing if we could maybe buy a place. I needed to see the houses that were next to it, the neighborhood – to see if it would make the story work. So, we said let’s just go down there and see if we can figure it out. We go down there and met somebody who immediately told us how we could find all the property owners. That was a great start. Finding the property owners was another problem. So we were looking for a specific type of house. We’re driving around. We were in the 7th Ward. Right on the corner, we see this incredible 2 story building that must have once been a grocery store or something like that. The door was bright green and it was not only abandoned but totally falling apart. It looked like if you pushed it, you could tip it over. It was in such a bad state of disrepair, it looked art directed. Just incredible! So, I was a little concerned because it didn’t match the building we had in the script. So, if we commit to this, we have a slightly different plot now. But, it seemed like the one to do. We’re looking at it, thinking how the hell do we find out who owns this thing? Well, as we were standing there looking at it, everyone down south there is so friendly, and this guy, somewhere in his 60’s, is coming down the street. He is holding in his hand the largest onion I have ever seen. I don’t know why. As he comes to us, he greets us. We said to him, “Hi. You wouldn’t by chance know who the owner of this building is?” “Yeah, my friend Sophia,” he goes. We said we’d like to rent the place for two weeks and film here. We’ll give her 1000 bucks. He goes, “Oh my god, she needs the money! Oh, my god!” So, that evening, we got permission, gave her half the money – it was like – huh? Can it be that easy? Well, it really was down there. All the neighbors knew we had gotten permission legitimately when we came down there a month later and they couldn’t have been more helpful. We ended up putting a lot of them in the film. It was scary. they all said the same thing. Be off the street by sunset because the gang’s come out at night there – at least in that area. It was weird. Once the sky was dark, you could stand there on the street and look in any direction and you would not see a soul moving. Everybody was behind closed doors. It looked like it was evacuated, you know what I mean?
BGHF: Chilling! Do you have a title for the film yet?
Frank: I don’t know yet. I wanna keep the details about it quiet. It’s not a horror film, so there’s no mystery about it. But I still have months of work on it. But I like the fact that I was out of my comfort zone. There was no blood, no killing. It’s funny, but it’s not a comedy. No monsters! Nothing like that! So, it threw me at first – especially on the first day. I was like – this scene looks normal. Oh, yeah. It’s supposed to, you know? But that’s what attracted me to it – let’s try something a little more normal for once, you know what I mean?
BGHF: (laughing) So something, maybe even a little bit sentimental, perhaps?
Frank: I don’t think there is a single sentimental shot in any of the films I’ve made. (laughs) And if there is, I should be beaten for it! There is a moment in this new one that has a sense of sentimentality to it and I am trying to figure out how to downplay it, as we speak!
You can keep it vicously unsentimental, as well, by hanging with Frank the weekend of March 8th in Chicago at screenings of the Basket Case trilogy and Brain Damage – http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/121460304700898; http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/569975819685686!
Big Gay Horror Fan, meanwhile, is always comforting his inner freak at https://www.facebook.com/biggayhorrorfan.com too!
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!