Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Mr. Beaks has got all sorts of good stuff coming up for you this week, including a look at that LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING 20-minute preview reel that New Line showed, a script review that sounds fascinating, and some more interviews about this week’s TEXAS CHAINSAW release. Here’s his first one, a talk with a man who much of Hollywood vilified before he ever made a film at all... and be warned... there are spoilers in this interview...
You might not know who Marcus Nispel is, but you’ve surely seen his work. The director of countless music videos for artists as diverse as Cher, D’Angelo, Joe Jackson, No Doubt and hip-hop MIA’s Fu-Schnickens (a barely listened to copy of TERMINATOR X AND THE VALLEY OF THE JEEP BEATS to the first person in the talkback who brings me up to date on their career), and twice as many commercials, the guy is beyond prolific. And, judging from his work on this newfangled version of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, he’s managed the oft-rocky transition from three-minute to ninety-minute storytelling with nary a hitch.
When Marcus Nispel enters the room, two things strike you about the man: he is really freakin’ tall, and he really, I mean *really* likes the color orange (according to one of his actors, it reminds him of the sunrise). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. He’s also very personable and extremely chatty; a far cry from the intense, humorless control freak I had been primed to expect from industry scuttlebutt. In other words, he subverted my expectations in much the same way his film did.
The following questions are from a roundtable discussion comprised of myself and a few of my fellow web journalists. We’re in the small print, and Nispel is in the big print.
How do you make a movie that’s on a low budget look like it’s much more expensive? Is it coverage? Is it sound design? The movie looks like a huge, huge production.
I did 250 music videos, and they’re good training because they’re the best and worst of all worlds. You can get a very, very tiny budget, or you can get a huge budget. I got some of the biggest that were ever shelled out, and some of the smallest just because you like the track. But when you see them on my reel, it doesn’t look like I punished one because they had less money with an inferior style. It was very important for me to do what’s right for the project, and not compromise that. What you learn in music videos is you write for it; you make sure you make your nest right. When you talk to people who do a lot of features, they always say one thing: “Well, the first week is just like pulling teeth, and, then, after a week, everyone gets into a groove, and suddenly the un-accomplishable becomes accomplishable. It’s like magic, but it always happens.” But most of the stuff I do, I only have one day. If I don’t figure this out in the first hour, I’m screwed. With this movie, we had to do it every day. Every day, we had to have everybody believe in it one more time because a little genre flick… why should we care? And I’m talking about a crew that didn’t know what hit them. When we came to town, we all had certain aspirations. Daniel (Pearl), the cinematographer, did the first one. And he said to me, “THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was my career. I’m defined by it. It got into the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve never topped its success with anything I’ve done. If I screw this one up, I’m nobody.” (Laughs.) Talk about aspirations! I don’t want to disappoint my best friend. A complete coincidence, by the way. But also one of the reasons why I went, “Oh, that would be fun.” It wasn’t ever really that much fun, but it was a basis to get started, at least.
Did you feel any pressure, by virtue of working with Daniel on this, to take it in a completely different direction visually?
I realized it was sort of like a fun experiment for me. You see, I had a lot of choices of much bigger movies if I would have wanted to make them. They were usually special effects-driven, or celebrity-driven, or studio-driven. This was something where I could just sort of do my thing. Then Daniel comes in, and you start to think much more about the fact that it’s not just a fun experiment. And, then, the actors come in. This movie was done with… because of the actors. Because it’s hot, it’s a crew that’s completely puzzled while we try to do, like, fifty set-ups a day average. And then you look at these actors in real pain. When he’s hanging there on this hook… that was not comfortable. It’s not like digitally taking the leg out. It’s like, there’s a hole in the piano, and he’s got his whole pressure on that. (The harness) hurts his nuts. And Jessica, when she cries, these are real tears. She’s not using Visine, or anything. Even more so, she’s the vegetarian amongst us. When she was in the slaughterhouse… she said it would be easier for her to see a human getting killed than an animal getting killed. And she’s now in these carcasses. That was the idea: you re-act rather than act. It’s a true situation; it’s visceral. We’re not talking about a hypothetical thing, and what does your character feel right now. You’re getting chased by this chainsaw – there is a real feeling to that, and how do you react? – and I’m just the documentarian. And they had their field day.
With a movie like this, and with the way horror has been lately with SCREAM and FREDDY VS. JASON, you could’ve gone in a more commercial, poppy kind of way. But this is pretty hard core. Why did you decide to stick with that direction?
What helps is that I’m not your typical horror movie fan. I like a good dark tale. I love movies like SE7EN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS because nothing is scarier than real life somehow. I think my approach was not in remaking the horror movie, even though I have great reverence for it. When I watched the original, I was amazed by a lot of things, one of which was how un-gory it was. People ask me all of the time, “Is this one gorier than the other one?” That’s a hard question, because I don’t think of either one as that gory considering that your average CSI episode has more gore than both of them together.
But I didn’t go in to make a remake. In fact, if anything, I said the Ed Gein story inspired three of the scariest movies of all time: PSYCHO, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I wanted to get to the psychology of that. So I swiped much more from that than going, “What makes green really work?” to a focus group.
When you started putting this together, what was your take on Leatherface? What did you kind of conceive that he looked like? What was he like as a person?
Good question. The script kept me on the edge of my seat, but it had two major questions that the first movie never answered. One was, if someone is crazy in a family, the rest would notice, right? How come they’re all supporting him? If my son would go mad and wear other people’s faces, I wouldn’t be supportive of him *unless* something happened to him – a deformity or whatever – that is being ridiculed. I think about that a great deal when I think about Columbine. I wonder, “Where are the real monsters?” Who made these kids be that way? It’s not a question of are our schools safe from these kids, but are these kids safe from their parents or their environment? How ridiculed were they? I don’t know. But I figured maybe with this guy, maybe he got ridiculed. It’s an interesting thing… the Latin word “persona” means “mask”. Now, here’s someone who has no identity, so he has to wear other people’s faces for a mask. People that heckled him. People that are much more beautiful than he is, and a family that knows what drove him to this; namely, that heckling. And that’s why they support him.
There’s another thing that I wanted to do, which was… I looked at the mask, and it started as a fantastic mask, but as I looked at it, I thought, “Maybe we made a mistake here.” He looks like a monster. He could be a zombie. He could be a Klingon for all I know. But what really makes it scary is that he’s a real guy – the neighbor’s son on a wild rampage. So, I wanted him to take his mask off, and that’s when I got the idea that if I take his nose off and talk about skin cancer in one of the last scenes in the trailers, I can button it all up. There were three areas that I wanted to address: this was a real person, this is why they support him, and this is why he’s doing it. The original didn’t do it; it had very different, much more philosophical ideas. Tobe Hooper said a really interesting thing. He said Ed Gein had so many different personalities, and he wanted to put them all in the movie. But how do you do it? He created the family. Every member of the family is a facet of Ed Gein. I think it’s a great idea, but I didn’t get it from the movie. But it’s a great, playable idea for a director and an actor.
One of the things about the movie that’s great, actually, for these kinds of movies is that the girl falling in the forest as she’s running is never the thing that gets her caught. Like you’re saying, you want to give a logical background to their stories. How much of it was the script, how much of it was you developing it further, how much of it was on set? How did you not fall into those traps?
My biggest involvement with the script, with the exception of what I just said, I guess, was that I read it, and really liked it, but underlined a whole bunch of things that I didn’t like. When the producers looked at (my notes), they said, “Oh, you should look at our first draft because you went back to that one.” (Laughs.) As a testament to Scott (Kosar), when I read his first draft, it pretty much stayed in place. A couple of things had to change, like I just said. Also, scenes had to be taken out; I reworked the scene at the end at the prairie house, and what really happens with the truck and the sheriff at the end. (Beaks’ Note: Nispel’s affinity for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is very much in evidence there.) A lot happened with the ending. I don’t know why because there was nothing that wrong with it. But set pieces were taken out, and new stuff had to be found.
The original ends much more nihilistically, but in this one you have the baby. Was that something you guys put in to have maybe a little bit of hope?
Well, I wasn’t sure about the baby at the time. In fact, (Jessica’s character) is pregnant throughout the movie. Kosar wanted her to be nine month pregnant throughout the entire movie! (Laughs.) It didn’t fly. Michael (Bay) didn’t get that *at all*. I thought it was actually very interesting in sort of a Cronenberg kind of way, right? (Laughs.) But that didn’t fly. Then, there was a lot of talk about the baby. “Look, you’re going to be a father!” Kemper (Eric Balfour’s character) was supposed to be the father. “And if you’re going to be a father, you have to show responsibility.” Oh, god! That’s so exactly not what I think this should be. They said, “Well, it’s got to have heart, right?” So, at the beginning they were talking about the ring. Well, what if the guy gets hauled up after he’s dead, and (the ring) falls out of his pocket. It’s all about potential; it’s all about what we could’ve had, right? Just by that falling into the bathtub, you realize that he had it all along. He just didn’t find the time to give it. It’s so much about loss, and pulling heartstrings without being saccharine, because that really bugs me in these movies. I feel like it’s, “Oh, and now something for the ladies!” Now, this movie just battered its females, which is sick in itself. Nobody wants to be pandered to. Nobody wants to feel like this is the “sellout” part. Again, just what came out of Jessica, it was just so fantastic everyday just to watch her act and go inside. As I said, she never used Visine; it was always real. That was a real privilege to see.
One of the actors was talking about how you were very much the camera operator, and that you used a lot of handheld and stuff like that. Would you talk a little bit about your approach on that? Were you trying to capture a voyeuristic kind of thing?
We didn’t have time to put it on sticks. (Laughs.) It was like the biggest handheld movie since JAWS, I guess. The camera never stood still. It was a real madness. It was loud, you know? The screaming and the yelling, and everybody doing everything at the same time. It was really fun, by the way. You’re supposed to rehearse it, but there’s no time for rehearsal. Now, I’m trying to block the scene, and I look through the camera and I just see busy bodies everywhere. You never see the scene. You don’t get to see it until you see through the lens.
How many units were shooting at the same time?
Daniel and I were always close together, but we never had a second unit that would just wander off. Andy Ryan, my gaffer, who was also Michael’s gaffer for a long time, he would walk off and do second camera. We didn’t have money, really, for a second unit, even if I would’ve wanted to. So, we always had to fires going at the same time. There was literally a scene – I saw it in dailies – where Jessica is in the locker, crying her eyes out as Leatherface walks around, and she’s done, but I’m not saying cut. She says, “Is he even here?” And I’m in the other room with Andy shooting stuff for the opening titles because it’s our last day.
Michael said he decided consciously to bring in a European director. Why do you think that is?
God only knows. I have no idea. Michael comes from commercials, and the way they screen directors is that you go in the room and you have to work by osmosis. If you don’t completely nail what’s going on, or what’s expected from you, you don’t get the job. In movies, it’s different. You go in the room, and you might say something that’s completely off-target for them, but they like the idea of working with you, and they sort of go along with it. But you never know if they really like it or not; it’s much more passive-aggressive. What I really like about Michael is that you know right away if this is what he wants or not. I did it like a commercial; I came in with… a lot of tears from magazines, we looked at crime scene walkthroughs, we looked at Joel-Peter Witkin photography… all of that kind of stuff. It was really interesting to see how squeamish Michael is. He’s like, (recoiling in terror) “Ewww! Ewww!” Here’s a guy who blows up the world every chance he gets, and he can’t look at a severed foot, or something.
Being a director himself, was he very much in control of the production?
He was doing BAD BOYS II, but he was very much in control, for sure – making his choices, and sticking with them. He was also in control of making something out of nothing.
It wasn’t like a director directing you?
No. A lot of people wondered about that. No, not at all. He started BAD BOYS II before I got to shoot, and he finished way after I was done with my cut. But don’t get me wrong; to make this movie for so little money was not just me and my music video background. There were a lot of favors being pulled, and a lot of people that are way too fanciful to work on something like this. I really screened them carefully. I didn’t want them to be like, “Oh, we can do your little movie. We’ve done all of this for Michael.” They all said, “We’ve done stuff that was effects-driven, and we’ve done stuff that was celebrity-driven. And we just want to feel alive again.”
Do you think the budget had anything to do with why you were chosen?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve said “no” to $100 million productions before that. I could have done those, but I would’ve been a little wheel in the machine. I would’ve been the guy in the trailer arguing with the celebrity while the cinematographer’s out making the movie. I didn’t want that as my first experience. Maybe on the next.
What about setting this in reality? Making it historical, putting the bookends of actual news footage, and John Larroquette doing the narration. What was so important about making this couched in reality like that?
Michael was a big, big supporter of that. That’s the basis on which the movie was sold; that we’d go back to the true inspiration of that. Michael was very, very involved with that. Also, editorially, the beginning is what he had the most to say about. The logic of all of that mattered a great deal to him. It makes all the difference to know that this can happen, and did happen.
Now that you’ve done this baptism by fire as your first film, do you really want to jump into that $100 million film next?
Michael does movies for those budgets or bigger, and they’re all still baptisms by fire. More money doesn’t mean that it’s going to be any milder. It’s the same craziness because that’s the way we are. There are movies that I decided not to do in the past, and my wife was really mad because she really likes the idea of a red carpet experience, which is exactly what’s wrong with Hollywood. People do the movie for the wrong reasons often. But she said, “No, you’ve got to do it. You’re just chicken! You’re just afraid! You’re fearful!” I have a master, and I said, “What does the master have to say about fear?” Because maybe I am afraid. Fuck, I’ve been at this for fifteen years, and I still haven’t done a movie. I got the first offer fifteen years ago. And I looked what he said under “fear”. He always has a big sermon, but under “fear” he had only one line. He says, “Fear is the absence of love.” If you don’t really love this… and maybe this is why they gave it to a demented European director, because I *can* love this. I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to make Degas kind of paintings. I’m a big Rembrandt fan. You can’t shoot Rembrandt on diaper commercials. This kind of movie, you can. You can paint.
Is doing horror against your philosophy?
It’s all contradictions, isn’t it? One of the guys who gave me hope again in Hollywood is M. Night Shyamalan. If you look at his movies, they all strike a chord. Him doing a movie like UNBREAKABLE, where he says, essentially, good and evil are two sides of the same coin, can’t exist without each other, *need* each other. It’s a very different philosophy than, for example, a Christian mindset, where it’s always black and white, and this is wrong and this is right. I also believe very much in the cathartic experience. I believe that’s where we learn the most about ourselves. Love and fear is what you balance there. There’s a great Indian saying: “The father says to his son, ‘I have two wolves in my heart. One is called fear and the other is called love, and they’re always fighting.’ The son says, “Which one wins?’ And the father says, “Who I feed the most.” I always liked that.
I’ll be back tomorrow with our discussion with Michael Bay.