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J.R. Bookwalter

J.R.: "..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".

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
January 30th, 2005

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 another eventually.

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 business then?
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 admire it.

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.

J.R.: "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 painful. (laughs)

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 doing it.

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.

J.R.: "The new breed are just grabbing
cameras and shooting".

How do you feel about the digital revolution?
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." (laughs)

Are there any plans for a Witchouse 4?
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 financially. (laughs)

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 sucked. (laughs)

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 slate?
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 idea.

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 J.R..
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

Don't fall behind, make sure you get help
writing college papers fast.


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