With almost 20 years in the
industry behind him, J.R. Bookwalter is more than qualified to talk about
life as a working filmmaker. I talked to J.R. about his career (including
his work with Sam Raimi) and was surprised at his honesty. Anyone
considering a career in the industry will surely enjoy this interview.
I'm just sorry it took six months to get it online!!
When did you first realise
that the film industry was where you wanted to work?
Probably around late 1979, when I first picked up my mother's Super-8mm
camera and started making my own little short films. Thankfully my mother
was quite diligent about documenting my sister and I's childhood in home
movies — this being way before the advent of camcorders, mind you. I think
there was something about setting up the projector and screen every now
and again and watching those images flicker across the silver that
appealed to me as a kid, so I always knew I would pursue it in one form or
You went to film school but
famously left after your apartment was burgled. Any regrets on leaving?
Actually it wasn't film school at all...the Art Institute of Pittsburgh
didn't have any film classes back then, so I took photography which I
figured was close enough. It was only 2 hours from home and of course very
near George Romero's home base, so I figured that was the right choice to
make. (laughs) And I did wind up being an extra in DAY OF THE DEAD during
my tenure there, so it wasn't a total waste. The theft happened when my
roommate and I, against the good advice of our parents, moved out of the
secure building we were in and down the road to a less-desirable section
of town. We had just started our second year (AIP is a 2-year school) when
it happened. I have no regrets, because I was bored with the classes
anyway. It was only good for me to get out on my own a bit in a "safe"
environment — meaning somebody else was paying the bills and I was close
enough to home to run back with my tail between my legs if need be.
How did you get started in the
I plodded around for a month or so after dropping out of AIP, writing
scripts and figuring I'd try to do some industrial videos or something to
get my foot in the door. One day I was thumbing through my back issues of
FANGORIA magazine and re-read an old article on THE EVIL DEAD, which was a
favorite of mine. The article reminded me that Renaissance Pictures was
based in Detroit, which was only a 4-hour drive from me. So I called
directory assistance, got the number and called them up to offer my
services as a production assistant on their answering machine. A few days
later the phone rang and it was Sam Raimi returning the call. We chatted a
bit and then he put me on with Bruce Campbell who did the hiring then. I
set up a meeting to drive to Detroit and meet them, never suspecting how
that would change my life!
The Dead Next Door was a huge
part of your life. How did you get Sam Raimi involved?
Well, it was 4 years of my life making it, and certainly it has continued
to be a big part of my life. That movie is sort of the sun that all the
other planets (i.e., movies) orbit around, if that makes any sense. So I
wind up in Detroit with my Super-8mm projector and a handful of short
films to show Sam in an effort to get hired as their lackey on EVIL DEAD
2. To my surprise, Sam seems genuinely impressed by these movies and more
importantly by me as a person. Long story short, he encourages me to think
about doing my own feature and says he might kick in a few bucks if I did.
That was all the incentive I needed, so I drove back home and wrote THE
DEAD NEXT DOOR and the rest is history, as they say. (laughs)
Why do you think that the fans
respect it so much?
I couldn't tell you, because many other fans have become filmmakers and
very often their movies are met with a lot of venom. My friend Dave
Parker, for instance, who made THE DEAD HATE THE LIVING...I thought it was
a pretty accomplished flick considering it was made under those insane
Full Moon conditions, but the fans really seemed to despise it. Then
again, over the years as people discover DND, I also find it has many
detractors as well. I think Dennis Petersen (who wrote the DEAD FUTURE
sequel script for me) hit the nail on the head...DEAD NEXT DOOR is just a
lot of blind ambition on film. You watch it and it’s kind of ballsy
considering what it is...we never took "no" for an answer and that sort of
attitude speaks to the fans and to fledgling filmmakers, I guess. It's
nowhere close to a perfect movie, but it's gutsy enough for people to
Did you have any idea it would
be a success or were you just hoping it would be?
Well, I don't think it is a success! Certainly not financially, but maybe
it could be considered a success in terms of overcoming obstacles. Here's
this movie shot in Akron, Ohio on Super-8mm film with a bunch of unknowns
that is shoddily distributed at best, and yet it overcomes all that and
the fans continue to find it. I think there are a lot of movies that fit
that description that never build a following...of course we had a secret
weapon in Sam Raimi's involvement, but I don't think that alone would have
kept the movie going all these years. Obviously somebody likes it and
shares it with their friends or picks it up on eBay as a blind buy and a
new fan is born. I never had any expectations as to what it would or
wouldn't do...I was just happy to make a movie. But looking back at it
almost 20 years later, I am extremely grateful to everyone who's picked up
a copy or said a kind word about the film. It really took on its own life
years ago because Sam and I both sort of abandoned it when it was first
released and moved on to other things. I certainly haven't had to do that
much nudging to keep the movie out there all these years, despite it not
being readily available.
Can you tell us about the new
Anchor Bay DVD?
Right now it's a bunch of film strewn all over a couple bins in Dennis
Petersen's apartment. (laughs) We're doing the new telecine at the end of
July which will be quite exciting for me since the original transfer done
in 1986-87 was totally unsupervised. From seeing bits of the film while
Dennis assembling the reels, it's obvious that there's a lot more quality
to be squeezed out of that little Super-8mm frame! As the years have gone
by, a lot of new viewers have commented how grainy and murky THE DEAD NEXT
DOOR is and they're right, but honestly it's probably one of the
best-looking Super-8mm features I've ever seen. It's amazing how many kids
these days seem to think the movie was shot on video, as if we painted in
all of those emulsion scratches and grain! (laughs) At any rate, the
picture will be a considerable improvement from any previous release. I
have to completely recreate the titles and opticals so those will be
improved a bit also, and I've made some subtle tweaks to the picture,
mainly to improve the flow of the pacing and use a few shots that I wasn't
able to make work all those years ago. I'm sure a few people will cry foul
and call me George Lucas Jr., but this isn't exactly STAR WARS we're
talking about here and as I said, these are very subtle changes that the
average fan won't even notice. We're also going to clean up as much of the
film scratches as we can so it should be a nice surprise for everyone.
Thankfully Anchor Bay was totally willing to not only
let me restore the movie myself but also to produce the extras. We're
going to remix the show in 5.1 surround — unlike recent Tempe DVDs such as
OZONE and SKINNED ALIVE where we completely rebuilt the mix from scratch,
this will be more just taking the existing mix stems and moving the sound
around the surround space, but the end result should be the same. There
will also be an alternate stereo mix patched together from a temp mix with
the original actors' voices...the entire movie was redubbed as many people
know, so this will be the first time anyone will get to hear what the
actors really sound like. I've been extensively digging through the
archives to come up with a long list of extras, so stay tuned...it will be
worth the wait.
"I'm a guy who enjoys creature comforts".
You have worked in almost
every job available in film, which is your favourite?
I think that has changed over time...early on I probably enjoyed writing
more than anything else, but as time has gone on I'd say the directing and
editing. My early films were a mixed bag in terms of actors, but the later
stuff improved upon that and as I've worked with better actors I've
learned how to communicate my ideas better as well. I've gotten less
obsessed with editing after doing so much post-production work in the last
5 years for Full Moon, but when I sit down with a project of my own the
old love for it does indeed return.
What for you is the least
enjoyable process of filmmaking?
Hands down, producing! I have always said that producing is nothing more
than being a glorified production assistant with a really cool credit.
It's infinitely more fun to be the director spouting out all these cool
ideas than the guy who has to figure out how to do them and/or do the
legwork to make them happen. But in nearly two decades, I have yet to find
a producer that I trust 100% and who works well with me (the one exception
probably being THE DEAD NEXT DOOR). So that means I've had to do a lot of
that work myself, and I hate it. Then again, I also hate the experience of
just being on the set...I'm a guy who enjoys creature comforts and making
a movie is anything but. The longer the shooting schedule the less
nightmarish it is since you have time to think and experiment, but I can
think of only one or two movies that I can truly say I had any fun being
on the set. Then again, it's not about having fun...it's about doing the
best job you can with what you have at your disposal, and sometimes that's
Which of the projects you have
worked on has been the most fun?
The most recent one was WITCHOUSE 3: DEMON FIRE, because it was so
low-budget and going into it I had no expectations. In fact, I didn't even
plan to put my name on it as director, which I think was liberating in
many ways. Instead of trying to extensively map out everything that I
wanted to do each day, I just sort of showed up with script in hand and
said "Let's see what we're going to do today..." (laughs) Which is not to
say that I didn't care because I always try to do the best job I can...it
was a combination of a script that was written knowing without a doubt we
could pull off 90% of it for the money and time, and also not worrying
what anyone would think because I didn't plan to put my name on it anyway.
That movie had a very small cast and crew who believed in the script and
my skills as captain of the ship and it was one of the few times where
everything just clicked into place. Believe me, that's rare!
In general it's hard for me to have fun on these movies
because I do take them dreadfully seriously! I have known so-called
filmmakers who are only doing it because they want to feel like a big shot
or worse yet so they can sit around with their friends and have a few
laughs over what they've created. I am not one of those people...it's a
very love/hate thing with me and I will trash my own movie as not being
good enough but will defend it to the death if anyone else says something
bad about it. (laughs)
And which has been the biggest
pain in your ass?
Probably all the rest of them. (laughs) WITCHOUSE 2: BLOOD COVEN was
exciting because I traveled to Romania and finally shot on 35mm film with
a wonderful DP, and also got to work with Andrew Prine who I've always
been a fan of. But I was deathly ill the entire month I was there and it
was a rough 8 days of shooting, let me tell you. By far the worst
production I've ever endured was GROOM LAKE, the William Shatner flick
which I produced. The money guy wanted to make it dirt cheap but was
telling Shatner a higher number, so I was constantly having to be stuck in
the middle of that, and it was a big movie shot on location in Arizona
with a SAG cast, a DGA director (Shatner) and a WGA script. Did I tell you
how much I hate unions? (laughs)
Who have you enjoyed working
with in the past?
Thankfully I'd say the majority of the people I've worked with have been
beyond pleasant. I've had the chance over the years to work with some
celebrity types like Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley, Scott Spiegel, Burt
Ward and Andrew Prine who have all been wonderful. Of course Sam Raimi was
extremely generous on my first film, which sort of spoils you for what
lies ahead. James Black was someone we discovered in Ohio and despite
having some good fortune in Hollywood on bigger projects, he is still very
loyal and willing to do these smaller movies with us and we have a blast
doing them. I had the rare pleasure of working with Debbie Rochon on
WITCHOUSE 3, who went on to star in three more shows that I produced. I
say "rare" because we connected in a much deeper way than most actors and
directors, which is probably why we're still great friends even when we're
not working together. And I'd be remiss not to mention Ariauna Albright,
who has been involved in many of the films I've done since 1995. We were
romantically involved before we ever worked together, and that went on and
off for many years, always "on" between movies and "off" during them.
(laughs) We usually don't get along too well on set, because we're both so
committed to the work, but we are able to set aside our differences and be
professionals, and the end result is always worth it which is why we keep
Anyone ever been a huge pain?
Sadly, yes. William Shatner and I had some pretty gnarly spats on GROOM
LAKE, mostly because he had never made a movie that low budget and could
not adapt to it. One of the male leads on WITCHOUSE 2 was a complete pain
in my ass, and his performance suffers as a result of it. I tend to hate
everyone by the time we're done shooting — making these movies is a lot
like therapy in that it opens you up emotionally but sometimes that can be
dangerous. But I generally come to love everyone again when I'm editing
the movie and there are thankfully very few people that I would flat-out
never work with again.
What are your feelings on the
current state of the genre?
It sucks. In the last couple of years I've sort of turned in my "Horror
Geek Club" membership card and really don't watch a lot of the modern
horror flicks because so many of them are just offensively bad. But I also
think my tastes have changed as I've gotten older, and I have more
interests than just horror, certainly compared to when I was 19 starting
on THE DEAD NEXT DOOR. A lot of my attitude also stems from the fact that
many of the so-called horror fans can be such assholes these days, mainly
because they now have a voice and can get away with it. Years ago it was
just genre magazines, a few fanzines and your friends, plus I think the
movies were better so there was less criticism. Now with the Internet,
everyone thinks they're an armchair critic but they don't know the first
thing about what being a critic means so they just spout off at the
mouth...verbal flatulation, as it were. (laughs) I haven't seen a horror
movie that I've truly liked in many moons, but thank God there are still
some great films being made in other genres to enjoy.
"The new breed are just grabbing
cameras and shooting".
How do you feel about the
I appreciate the fact that anyone can now pick up a camera and make their
own movie. But, this isn't really a revolution, because we were already
doing that at least 10 years before DV ever came on the scene. Yes, the
tools are finally here to make professional movies on your desktop, and
for that I am thankful. But it's also amusing, because many of the people
who were critical of me a decade ago are now doing the same thing, just
with better tools. DV has become a great equalizer, but sadly most of the
movies are complete garbage because these people are not experimenting and
taking the time to learn how to make movies first. Because of people like
Robert Rodriguez and things like BLAIR WITCH, the new breed are just
grabbing cameras and shooting, which means we have to suffer through a lot
of shitty movies in the hopes of finding a few gems. I have to quote Jeff
Goldblum in JURASSIC PARK here...when referring to the insanity of
building a theme park from genetically-cloned dinosaurs he states
matter-of-factly, "Just because they can do it, doesn't mean they should."
Are there any plans for a
I wouldn't count on it, and if Charlie Band ever does get that wild hair
up his ass I doubt I'll have any involvement. The thing is,the first
WITCHOUSE was a total fluke because it fell right in the middle of BLAIR
WITCH mania and people wanted to rent anything with the word "witch" in
the title. But the movie sucked ass, to put it bluntly...it was a lame
remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, which itself was not exactly a classic in
my opinion. So when I was hired to make WITCHOUSE 2, I asked Charlie Band
if he was sure he wanted to do this, because I didn't see lightning
striking twice. And ironically, the sequel was being released right after
BLAIR WITCH 2 hit theatres and died a miserable death. In my opinion both
sequels are far superior movies, but by that point the BLAIR WITCH
backlash had begun and my prediction came true because BW2's box office
death meant nobody really wanted to see WITCHOUSE 2. By the time WITCHOUSE
3 rolled around, there was really no point in doing it, and I begged
Charlie to just call it DEMON FIRE instead, but he wouldn't hear of it.
Each movie did less and less business, which is ironic because the reviews
only got better after the first one. I'm a bit like the lo-fi Robert
Altman in that regard...the movies get critical acclaim but don't do squat
Jigsaw was an interesting
film, was it enjoyable to work on?
I couldn't tell you! I was asked to produce two movies for Full Moon in
the summer of 2002 which I did sort of begrudgingly because I was already
burned out on the whole thing. So I turned to my friends Don Adams & Harry
James Picardi for the first one and they pitched me the idea for JIGSAW,
knowing that Charlie would go for it. I basically just set up the deal,
got them the money and let them run with it, then locked the edit and
delivered it. They did all the work, and since they went back to their
home state of Wisconsin to shoot it, I was totally an absentee
producer...in fact; I didn't take co-executive producer credit on either
of those films. In the case of JIGSAW it was because it was their film and
not mine...in the case of the second film, BLEED, it was because it simply
Can you shed any light on a
possible release for Deadly Stingers? Everyone I know who worked on it is
dying to see it out there.
I'm probably the only person who worked on it who would prefer that it
stays unreleased! (laughs) We delivered it in March, 2003 so I have no
idea what the holdup is. Shadow/Full Moon hired me to direct the movie,
which was being made as part of a deal Charlie Band was trying to concoct
with Fox Home Video. Fox paid him for the movie as agreed, but around that
time they were having piss-poor luck with movies like DARKWOLF, so they
really shied away from releasing any more "giant creature runs amok" kind
of movies. All I know is that Fox owns the international home video and
Shadow owns the international television, so I'm sure it will turn up
somewhere eventually. My relationship was so rocky with Shadow during that
show; I was barely involved with the post-production, which is one of many
reasons why it doesn't really "feel" like a Tempe movie to me. I never
even signed my contracts for re-writing the script or directing, so as far
as I know they can't even legally release it until that happens and nobody
has come asking me to. (laughs)
The Bad Movie Police series
has been doing great. Can you tell us about plans for volumes 4 and 5?
The first two BMP discs were very well received by reviewers, especially
considering how truly awful the movies are! (laughs) But everyone seemed
to dig the opening skits and the extras, thankfully. We didn't have a lot
of success landing major retail accounts with the first two releases, but
they sold very well through a chain of retail stores on military bases, of
all things! We have now switched to new distributors so hopefully BAD
MOVIE POLICE CASE #3: HUMANOIDS FROM ATLANTIS will sell even better, which
debuts on Nov. 16.
The first three skits were all shot together, so now I
have to create new ones for CASE #4: MAXIMUM IMPACT and CASE #5: ZOMBIE
COP. I've had many ideas floating around but haven't yet settled on any of
them...one involves a Charlie Band-type producer who brainwashes Lt.
Drucilla Dread (Lilith Stabs) into becoming the star of his latest
cheese-fest when she and Sgt. Elke Mantooth (Ariauna Albright) come to
arrest him. Most of these skits are loosely based on people in the
business I've known, and I can't tell you how many times when I worked for
Full Moon the sheriffs would show up to serve papers on Charlie Band.
(laughs) Another idea involves a stakeout outside the home of actor James
L. Edwards, who got pretty heavily teased in the first three skits and is
now seeking his revenge. And you can expect Lance Randas to return in the
next two, he'll be stepping up his "cine-terrorism" efforts.
Something to Scream About is
also doing very well, any news on releases or screenings outside of the
USA or how the fans can help to get it seen?
We haven't secured anything besides the domestic home video as yet,
although there is an offer on the table from Showtime here in the States
which might land it on cable and satellite systems. Unfortunately most of
our foreign sales agents don't really know what to do with a documentary,
and it's a particularly hard sell in non-English-speaking countries. I
think we'll eventually get some movement in the U.K. on it, though.
What's next on your project
Probably the aforementioned 4th and 5th episodes of BAD MOVIE POLICE,
which I'll probably write and direct myself this time around. And I'd love
to do a feature-length version, sort of THE BAD MOVIE POLICE MOVIE, which
would incorporate various skits and film clips tied together with a
storyline...think AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON and you'll get the general
We recently commissioned two new films from Chris
Seaver's Low-Budget Pictures — FILTHY McNASTY 3 and MULVA 2. FM3 is
completed and should debut on a triple feature with the first two movies
this November, and MULVA 2 will debut early next year. I've also been in
talks with Jason Paul Collum about some gay-themed horror features for his
own B+Boy label that we'll be distributing starting with the 5 DARK SOULS
movies in early 2005.
Beyond that, I'm not 100% certain what my next project
will be. Lately I've been turning down more things than I've been making,
because I really am not interested in slaving away for other producers
anymore. I have an idea for a low-budget drama that I want to do, and also
a few unfinished scripts here and there. So, we'll see.
"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."