In the midst of a discussion about the pitfalls of filmmaking, I suggest to iconic director Jeff Burr that he should teach a master class on the subject. Burr laughs me off with a word of polite thanks before moving onward, but I remain serious in my assertion.
Known by many genre fans for his contributions to existent franchises and off-beat indie fare, Burr has made an impact on the horror community over the last three decades by pushing ever forward with his craft. Although likely most identified as the man who gave the Sawyer family life anew in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, Burr’s wide body of work encompasses a plethora of thrills and chills that have helped give him the insight to inspire and advise a new generation of filmmakers.
In fact, it is Burr’s place as an inspiration to those that have grown up with his films that led to our little fireside chat today. Recently contacted by Henrique Couto, an Ohio-based independent filmmaker, Burr was surprised to discover that one of his lesser known films, Eddie Presley, had served as an inspiration to Couto on his own forthcoming feature, Depression: The Movie. Now, thanks to the cinematic kinship of the two films, Eddie Presley and Depression are set to play a once in a lifetime double bill at the Hollywood Theater in Pittsburgh, PA…and Burr couldn’t be more tickled about the idea.
“Jeff’s work had a huge impact on the landscape of film when I was growing up. His work always stuck out,” Couto tells me. “Sharing the bill with Eddie Presley feels incredible; Eddie Presley was how I learned films could really be personal and full of feeling. My idea of why films are made was entirely changed upon my first viewing of that film. There would be no Depression: The Movie without Eddie Presley.”
Forever excited and passionate about films, my plan to sit down with Jeff Burr to discuss the theatrical revival of Eddie Presley developed into a full-fledged conversation about the ups and downs of a career of cinematic carnage. From directing Vincent Price to the revelation that the real massacre in Texas may have happened behind the camera, Burr painted an earnest portrait of a career on the fringe.
Gracious and inspiring, Burr was more than willing to dish on his illustrious career and to give some valuable advice for filmmakers with a taste for fright. A true cult icon whose career developed from a whisper to a scream, I’m proud to present to you, my dear children of the popcorn, the legendary Jeff Burr.
We’re big fans of horror hosts here at Midnight Mass HQ, and we routinely celebrate the likes of Elvira, Rhonda Shear, John Stanley, etc. Because of this, I was delighted to discover that you attribute some of your earliest interest in the genre to your local host, Dr. Shock.
Yes! A guy named Tom Reynolds, whose name I didn’t even know growing up, and Dan East. They were Dr. Shock and Dingbat, out of Channel 9, Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was much more comedic than scary, in the same vein as Bernie Anderson (aka Ghoulardi – right) and Mad Magazine. They were the channel that had the Shock Theater package from the 50s, so they showed all the Universal Horror films. It was an odd combination, Universal Horror, silly humor, and a lot of cheap-exploitation films from the 60s and 70s. I was a regular watcher of that, for sure.
Would you say that it was the discovery of Dr. Shock and horror that drove you to make films, or were you just a casual fan to start?
I was always interested in film. One of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater was Frankenstein Conquers the World. It was a double-bill with Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, so I think it was around 1966. It was just amazing to me, to see this little kid grow up into a monster and fight another monster…which also led to a love of Japanese monster movies. So, I can’t say that Dr. Shock directly led to me wanting to be a filmmaker, but it certainly fed my love of the genre and movies.
As you know, in that era of the late-60s/early-70s, there was no cable to speak of, at least where I lived. Also, VHS was not really yet a thing. So, you either saw a film in the theater, or you saw it later on television, where it would have been chopped up and edited. So, it was great to have that outlet in some capacity. I was also a fan of magazines like Castle Frankenstein, The Monster Times, and Famous Monsters, but they were hard to find. You’d read about a film and hope to see it at some point.
It’s funny that you mention Frankenstein Conquers the World being one of the films that you recall seeing first in the theaters, because you did later go on to work on a Frankenstein film with David DeCoteau, titled Frankenstein & The Werewolf Reborn!
Well, DeCoteau made the Frankenstein half of the film and I made the werewolf half, so I can’t really claim there was any solid connection between the two. I also didn’t mean to suggest that Frankenstein Conquers the World was the very first film I saw in the theaters, it just was one of the earliest. In fact, I believe the very first movie I ever saw in the theater was a James Bond film, Thunderball. I remember being vividly horrified when a character got trapped in an airplane cockpit underwater and drowned. That just shook me.
It’s interesting to me that this vivid scene of violence stuck with you in Thunderball, because you’re certainly no stranger to violence in your own films. You’ve always had a rather dubious relationship with the MPAA. The initial cuts of Texas Chainsaw 3, Stepfather 2, From a Whisper, and Night of the Scarecrow all initially got slapped with an X-rating. Do you think, both as a genre enthusiast and a filmmaker, this upfront finger-wagging only adds to the mythos of a fright flick? Or is it ultimately just a pain in the ass for you as a director?
At the time I was making those movies, the pendulum had swung back toward the conservative side. Almost everything that was cut out of those movies then, you could probably show on television now. It really was just the political climate and mood of the country more than anything. Not to mention the mood of the MPPA.
I’ll tell you, even at its most graphic, Leatherface, or even the scenes from Stepfather 2 and From a Whisper, could easily pass with an R-rating today…especially when you look at what they’ve been able to get away with in the Saw films and other similar movies. But, the pendulum may be swinging back to the conservative side again. Who knows?
Well, the reason I asked about the MPAA is because you mentioned growing up reading magazines like Castle Frankenstein and Famous Monsters…
The reason I mentioned those is because growing up in a small town in Georgia , they were kind of a lifeline. There wasn’t a lot of press or material that was available on the background of these movies, or the genre in general. Pre-Star Wars, movies really hadn’t given over to press sensationalism and merchandising, so it was hard to get information on some of these films. Those magazines were like reading drumbeats from a tribe that was your own, but you didn’t know where the circle was…it was just amazingly validating to get these magazines. It was just nice to know there were people who liked these movies too, because even then it was considered very odd, very left of center to the mainstream.
Right, I know that I, and many of our readers, can sympathize. I grew up in a rural area, and we didn’t really get much. For my generation, Fangoria was that lifeline. The reason I made the MPAA connection was because, not only was it a revelation to know other people loved these movies, but whenever I’d read an article that made it seem like a movie was “too shocking for theaters” or “too dangerous” to go uncensored, it just made me want to see it more.
Of course! That’s the forbidden fruit, absolutely. That was the basis of 70s exploitation movies, because they were definitive of what you could not see on television. That’s what I sought out, too. You wanted the R-rated horror or action film, as opposed to G/PG fare; because you knew there would be something controversial or titillating in those movies.
That’s something that irritated the hell out of me on Leatherface. It got a lot of publicity, certainly within the industry, before it came out because of all the ratings cuts. If they could have, or would have, released an unrated version, I think it would have done pretty well the opening weekend. It would have had a lesser release, true, but the way they released it was just kind of dumping the movie anyway. So, I think it would have done better unrated for exactly the reasons you say, because people are drawn to the controversy. What’s worse, though, is they then marketed the movie as “the most controversial horror film ever,” which kind of set the audience up for a big disappointment if that’s what they were expecting.
As a little kid who was reading those horror movie magazines, getting a lifeline to the genre, it’s inevitable that you would have run across one of the poster boys of the era, Vincent Price, in the pages of Famous Monsters and the like. On your second film, The Offspring, you achieved every fan’s dream by casting him. Rumor has it you nabbed Vincent Price for the role simply by knocking on his front door and asking. Is that true?
That’s how it started. The truth is, of course, a little more complicated. But, that’s exactly how we began the whole process. I figured, “He’s never going to respond to the mail of an unknown filmmaker,” and I assumed the script would just be thrown into a stack of rejected screenplays. So, the producer and I got his address from a celebrity address service, and we went up to his door with the script and a bottle of wine in hand (Price was a noted wine connoisseur). We came bearing gifts, and wouldn’t you know… he opened the door himself when we knocked! It was a flurry of “Gee, Mr. Price, we’re fans of your work…” and “we wrote this script,” and he actually invited us inside. He had ever y reason to ignore us, and even if it was on a polite level, he could have said, “Okay boys, contact my agent,” but he was just so gracious. He invited us in, sat and talked with us for about 15 minutes, took the script, and that’s how it all started. I would say we did the right thing by going there, because that kept us in his mind for a while. It took a bit to submit the deal, because part of it was showing him some of the movie that we shot, etc. It took about six months before he actually agreed to do it, but I think it was a combination of our persistence and his bemusement over our persistence. At that point in his career, it’s not that he wasn’t getting offers, but I think a lot of people just assumed he was too expensive for a lower budget horror film. I think, for sure, The Offspring was the lowest budget film her ever made as a professional.
As a horror fan, coming into only your second film, was it intimidating to direct someone with that much legacy behind them?
I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, and I don’t want to seem arrogant, but at a certain point, you have to forget that they are a legend and direct them as an actor. You have to work professionally with them. I would never say we were on the same level, he taught me a lot. But, you have to get over whatever fandom part of the equation there is and deal with him as an actor and how he’s going to integrate into the movie you have in your head. And with that said, he was nothing but professional, gracious, and accommodating to any direction I gave him and the task at hand. He was just amazing. He literally came to me and said, “I want direction.” I think he wanted to allay those fears in me right away. He could have been the eight-hundred pound gorilla, but he was absolutely gracious, exactly what you’d expect from an actor of that caliber. He was an increasingly rare kind of actor who was extremely generous with his talent and his time.
From directing Vincent Price, your next film was Stepfather 2, then Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. You became something of an MVP crafting sequels to popular horror films. Is there added pressure when contributing a new installment to a franchise? For example, Leatherface made you quite literally the first filmmaker to take the reins from Tobe Hooper, who not only directed the first two, but created the whole thing. Is that an intimidating thing to take on?
Well, I guess if you really thought about it…-laughs-
Again, you have to approach it as a professional first. In the case of Leatherface, it might have been a bit of a different scenario if I had come on the film at a more normal time. I was hired very late in the game, and I was replacing other directors, so I really didn’t have time to contemplate that sort of thing, because I literally had to enter rolling up my sleeves and figure out how to get the film across in the amount of time given, working with a company I had never worked with before. I certainly wasn’t their first choice, but I don’t think I was their fifth choice, either. So, it’s nothing against them, but I was kind of an inexperienced director, but I also think I was the first guy who said “yes,” that they were able to then say, “Eh, he won’t screw it up too bad.”
My position there was a lot more tenuous than I initially thought. Because I was so late in the game, we had to start shooting two weeks after I was hired. I was thinking that once we got started, they’d eventually let me run with it, because there was no time to argue. That really wasn’t the case.
I will say that Leatherface was the first picture I did without a producer that I knew. That was the first Hollywood film for a company where I was the director and had no support system. I was just a director, as opposed to director/producer, etc. My brother produced my first two movies, along with a guy I went to school with, Darin Scott. They let me be creative without questioning every decision I made. That was exactly the opposite of the situation on Leatherface. Every creative decision had to be justified to a hundred different people. Which is, honestly, professional directing for hire. I didn’t get that or know it to that degree at the time.
Well, based on this information and your earlier discussion of some of the cuts made to the film, are you satisfied with Leatherface as it stands? Or do you wish you could have had more control over the process?
As a filmmaker, I view the whole process of making a movie a very holistic thing, where every department works in concert with the director’s vision. So, that really demands more control. I’ve never understood how a director could shoot something and not edit it, for example. When you shoot something, you’re shooting with the editing in mind, the sound effects in mind, the music, everything. It’s all in your head. So, to not have that ability to see it through, yes…it’s very disappointing. Any movie has degrees of that, though. So, am I satisfied? I’ve never been satisfied with any movie I’ve made. I think any filmmaker would say the same. There’s always something you would want to do differently, and especially on a production like Leatherface where a lot of the decisions were compromised.
For Leatherface, because I didn’t come on until rather late in the game, there were a lot of key decisions made that I had nothing to do with, including shooting the film in Los Angeles and building the house to the degree which they did. I would not have done either of those things, and I would have liked to have shot it in 16mm. I also would have had Gunnar Hansen in it, etc. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those things would have made a satisfying movie, either. Let’s be honest, the first and the second Texas Chainsaw films kind of run the spectrum of the subject matter. You have the documentary style of the first one. It’s incredibly creepy, grueling, and amateur in a meaningful way. The second one is a very glossy, “high budget” film with a star. It is a completely different take on the subject matter. Much more satiric and comedic, maybe even political, given the time it was made. So, going from those two extremes, anything you would have made, no matter how you would have made it, would have fallen between those two poles. I think a third movie of that franchise was kind of, not doomed, per se, but certainly by comparison always was going to be a lesser movie when compared to those two. Add to the fact that it was a New Line production around the time Freddy was in decline, so they were sort of looking for other horror franchises, so that had added pressure unto itself. I’m not saying it was a doomed project from the beginning, but it was the third movie of a would-be series, it was destined to always be an odd compromise.
I will tell you this, I am proud of some of the things I did on the movie. I think the cast is a lot of fun, and I think the film does have a lot to offer. It’s a pretty good movie for the budget. So, I’m not dismissing the movie, either.
You mentioned Texas Chainsaw 2, which starred Caroline Williams, who you worked with on Stepfather 2 immediately prior to shooting Leatherface. Did you know at the time you’d be working on the third Texas Chainsaw? Or did the quick nature of your hiring not allow for that foresight? I’m just curious to know if Caroline, as a Chainsaw alum, had any advice for you as you were heading to “Texas.”
When I was making Stepfather 2, I had absolutely no knowledge I’d be taking on Leatherface. We shot Stepfather 2 at the end of 1988, going into 89. Though, I think Stepfather 2 got me the job for Leatherface, because New Line screened it and then had my agent call me in for a meeting. That would have been in April of 89, and then New Line didn’t officially hire me until June. So, no, I didn’t know. Also, the casting of Caroline in Stepfather 2 wasn’t predicated on the fact that she was in Texas Chainsaw 2, but rather because I thought she was wonderful for the role. She had this great Holly Hunter quality for the movie, and she’s just so much fun.
Though, when I got the job to do Leatherface, I called up Caroline and said, “Hey, I’m doing this, would you mind making an appearance?” I wanted her to do a little bit more of an extensive cameo, but the producers would not allow it, so it had to be a silent thing. I certainly asked her about Tobe, but I don’t really remember asking her for any advice. There really wasn’t any connection between the second and third films, although there was some half-assed attempt at continuity. Our movie sort of acts like the second film doesn’t exist.
Shortly thereafter, in 1992, that’s when you made Eddie Presley. It’s a little bit different than the genre fare for which you’re primarily known. For the people who may be going to see it at its upcoming event screening in Pittsburgh, or for those discovering it at home on DVD, what can you tell us about the film?
For one thing, although not the only thing, it definitely was a direct response to my Leatherface experience. I wanted to go back to an independent film situation where I could control everything and have my own directorial back. My experience making Leatherface totally informed every bit of making Eddie Presley.
…and very tangentially, but real, Tobe Hooper helped finance Eddie Presley, and he probably doesn’t even know it. We had a big meeting with investors that flew out to California from Texas to invest in the movie. We had a dinner at a very famous restaurant called Musso & Frank’s, and the investors were meeting me there. We’re outside the restaurant, walking in, and Tobe Hooper is walking out. He spots me and says, “Oh, hey Jeff! I haven’t seen you since we had our breakfast about Leatherface…” and it seemed like he was my best friend, even though we had only met a couple times. The investors were so impressed with that, it encouraged them to invest in Eddie Presley.
It’s a low-budget film, but it’s one I had complete control over. We adapted a one-act play I had seen, and expanded it into this slice of LA life character study. I think the movie, whatever else it does or doesn’t do, certainly captures Los Angeles in the pre-riot, Daryl Gates police chief-era of 1991.
It is a lower budget film that was independently financed, but you somehow managed to put together this “Ocean’s 11 of Cult” ensemble. Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Campbell, Kitten Natividad, Ted Raimi, to name just a few, all make appearances. How did you go about casting the film and getting these people attached?
There was no formal casting director, just me. I love actors, so some of the people were friends of mine, some were people I worked with before, and some were friends of friends. All were people I loved that we got in very non-traditional ways. It was an unusual type of film, and all the roles were pretty unusual, so all the actors who were in the film really took a leap of faith.
It really is an amazing cast of, as you say, “The Ocean’s 11 of Cult Films.” Tim Thomerson, Roscoe Lee Brown, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi. And Quentin, he was someone I had only met a few months prior. We met before Reservoir Dogs. So, he wasn’t QUENTIN at the time, but he had shot Reservoir Dogs. It just hadn’t come out yet.
Quentin Tarantino later cast Duane Whitaker, who is in Eddie Presley, in Pulp Fiction. Furthermore, Duane Whitaker has a line in Pulp Fiction, “Is it Tuesday or Wednesday?” A line, which, he also says in Eddie Presley.
I did not know that! I hadn’t made that connection. I know the context of the line in Eddie Presley, of course. That is a huge coincidence, if it is one, for sure. However, Duane Whitaker’s getting cast in Pulp Fiction wasn’t a coincidence at all.
Since we leapt right into discussion of Eddie Presley, I would be a little remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the film has been selected by indie filmmaker Henrique Couto to play in Pittsburgh (as previously alluded to) as the second half of a double bill that also features his movie, Depression. Did you know Henrique prior the film pairing?
I met Henrique at a horror convention in Louisville. He came up to me and told me that he loved Eddie Presley, which, as you can imagine, is not something I hear every day. That made us immediately friends. –laughs-
He told me about Depression, and that Eddie Presley was inspiration for that movie. I met him again at Cinema Wasteland, and the movie was done. He gave me a copy, and told me about how he was trying to arrange a screening. I feel honored that Henrique, a young filmmaker, would want to pair his movie with Eddie Presley. I think it’s a dynamite-ly depressing double bill, and I’m honored he’d want them together. I think it’s a good companion piece for his movie. I also think that Depression is a big leap for him as a filmmaker. It’s a very funny, very engaging, and surprisingly tender movie.
I think that it’s really cool that you’re being so supportive of Henrique and are willing to be part of the double feature. You’ve got a wide array of credits to your name, and are certainly known among horror fans. There are a number of indie and low-budget filmmakers out there who the “names” of the genre usually don’t give a second glance. Do you think it’s important or crucial to the genre for people of your caliber to support them?
Of course! That’s the nature of the game. I’m going to use a phrase, and I don’t mean to include myself in the phrase, but you “climb up the backs of giants” in any art form. You’re influenced by the people that came before you. So, it’s your artistic duty to support the new wave. That doesn’t mean that the old wave, so to speak, is irrelevant. At any given time, there might be a movie of mine showing on cable or something, and it’s an honor that people want to see anything I’ve done years after the fact. If someone is influenced by or wants to see a movie you’ve made, that’s one of the joys of filmmaking…or any kind of art, really. To create something that someone is getting something out of many years later, that’s a major compliment.
Depression is a very a-typical, no budget movie. Whereas you meet a lot of indie filmmakers at conventions, they may have their versions of Saw or a zombie movie, this is really a leap forward as a filmmaker. Henrique has made a unique, almost Kevin Smith-esque movie, but I don’t even want to make that comparison, because it’s wholly its own thing. Only Henrique could have made it, and that’s what we all strive for in film.
Absolutely, older filmmakers should help, support, and mentor younger filmmakers. When I was a beginning filmmaker, I was given support by a variety of people and it was invaluable. Just on a mental level, it’s invaluable. The problems you have on the low-budget films are the problems that I have making a little bit above a no-budget film, and I’m sure they’re the same problems Steven Spielberg has making the 200 million dollar film. No one tells you these things when you start. Filmmaking is filmmaking at all levels. So, there’s always information and interesting techniques that you can glean from a variety of filmmakers.
It certainly seems, based on this discussion, that you’re connected to and proud of all your work. But, I’ve read other interviews you’ve given and even in things you’ve said here, Eddie Presley stands out for you.
Personally, to this day, I feel like I have three films I can call my own: From a Whisper to a Scream, Eddie Presley, and Straight into Darkness. Those were the ones that, if I was a politician, I’d say, “I’m Jeff Burr, and I approve this message.” Those are the three. Now, maybe people think the other ones are better than those three, but that’s neither here or there for me. The other ones had decisions that were made, in my estimation, that weren’t the best. So, those are the three I stand behind without a mountain of qualifications. Every movie I’ve done, I’m dissatisfied with, because the gap between what I wanted to do and what I did is fairly great. But with those ones, it’s less. There’s always that dissatisfaction, for me personally, hopefully not the audience. However, that means that, as a filmmaker, you’re always trying to learn with each movie. I also think the day you make a movie that you’re totally satisfied with, and you would never change a thing, then you should retire, because it will never get better.
That’s solid advice for filmmakers, new and old.
If you’re a filmmaker and say that, it’s a red flag to me. It’s just very suspicious. Not necessarily in an interview, but even in one-on-one conversation. Anyone who loves their own work that much, I’m very suspicious of…-laughs-
Ever looking to better yourself and move forward, I know that you’re still working on films. A film called Tornado Warning being your most recent.
It’s my most recent feature, yes. It’s a movie I did for SyFy Network. Insert punch line here.
So, what is next for Jeff Burr?
I’m writing several scripts. I’d love to direct another film. Getting paid to direct something is a Godsend. You’re getting paid to do something you absolutely love. So, I have nothing but gratitude for the chance to work in the field. That said, someone once said that “making a film is like doing a crossword puzzle in a falling elevator.” It is possible, but it takes extreme concentration. So, that’s what it’s all about. The older I get, the more concentration I want to give. When you’re a young filmmaker, you want to make a film to make a film. You’re dying to make a film, any film. The older you get, you really you care more about what kind of film you do, because you know the headaches and heartaches that go into the process. You want to be discerning. That’s where I’m at right now. Of course, I have to make a living too. So, if SyFy Channel wants me to direct another movie, Hell yes, I’m going to direct that movie. Plus, it keeps you in practice. Also, you never know, you may meet an actor you want to put in another project. It’s always good to work, rather than not work.
I do have a project I want to do though, it’s a very strange comedy. I’ve been working on it for a while now, and I really can’t say much more about it. I also absolutely want to do another horror film.
Any special features Night of the Scarecrow fans can expect?
There will definitely be a new commentary. I’m trying to do more, if they’ll let me. –laughs-
I asked our readers, via Twitter, whether they had any questions for you. I picked the following out, from Elizabeth Foreman, because I am also curious about your answer. Elizabeth asks, “Is it possible to shock anymore? What lengths/limits would you push in a film to get that shock factor?”
That’s a great question. I’d say it’s always possible, but it also depends on how you define a shock. I think it’s obviously harder to shock, but the human mind always contains the capability. It’s possible, but it’s not easily done. I think it’s a combination of atmosphere and situation. The feeling leading into the shock is now more important than ever.
So, I guess my follow-up to that would be to ask whether you’ve seen a film in the last five years that has shocked you?
I’d have to give that some thought. I do have an intense dislike of situations where I feel like the filmmaker is trying to shock. Situations where it’s so blatantly obvious that all they have in their repertoire is to reach for shock and nothing else. I haven’t seen A Serbian Film, which I have heard that if it doesn’t shock you, you don’t have a pulse…but, I think that’s the whole reason for that film to exist, and I don’t feel like that’s a good road to drive on. Because I haven’t seen A Serbian Film or the few others that came out in a similar vein, I can’t really say for sure. So, while I’m sure there is a film that’s out there that has been made in the last five year period that would shock me, I just haven’t seen it yet.
Your passion for film is obvious, and you seem to have a lot of plans for the future. It’s inspiring.
I love making films now as much as I did when I was a kid making Super 8 films in the backyard. There’s still a lot of that same guy in me when I make films now. It is fun and I enjoy it, and that’s never going away. If Hollywood hasn’t kicked it out of me yet, they never will. I’ll always have that enthusiasm and passion, and I just want to channel it into projects that can go the distance. I’ve never made a film that quite goes the distance, for a variety of reasons. That’s my hope, my goal, and my aspiration.
For more info on Jeff Burr, please visit http://www.jeffburr.com/
To check out Henrique Coutou & Depression: The Movie, please visit http://freakproductions.net/depression/index.html
For our readers in the greater Pittsburgh area, check out the event screening/double feature of Depression and Eddie Presley at the Hollywood Theater (http://www.thehollywooddormont.org) on December 7th, 2012