Interview: Brian Yuzna

Brian Yuzna was a special guest at this year’s Grossmann Festival of Film and Wine in Ljutomer, Slovenia, where he was given the newly established ReanimaCat award for special achievements in Horror/Fantasy cinema. He turned out to be a warm, kind, friendly person, always ready to talk to fans and obviously pleased to be in this region and at this particular festival devoted to low budget and genre cinema. He participated in the lecture devoted to H. P. Lovecraft given by Dejan Ognjanovic. Since his grandparents originated from Slovenia, he was kind enough to donate two prints of the films he produced and directed to Slovenian Cinematheque: RE-ANIMATOR and SOCIETY.

The following is the interview he gave to Serbian film critic and author, Dejan Ognjanovic.

Dejan Ognjanovic: My first question is the most obvious one: why horror? You seem to have specialized in this particular genre. Although there are elements of fantasy, action, black comedy etc. in some of your films, the bulk of them are basically – horror. Does it have anything to do with the fact that the first film that you produced, RE-ANIMATOR, happened to be horror, and a huge success – or is there something deeper and more personal between you and horror?

Brian Yuzna: I think the answer is a little of both. Once you begin making movies, you tend to fall into a kind of genre. But there are many people who start with horror and then go to other things. I began in horror, where I felt comfortable, I thought: “This is where I feel I understand what’s going on the best.” And it goes way back to having nightmares as a child. I sometimes think that horror fans, of which I am one, and I meet many of them – most of them are teenagers, but there are some to whom horror stays even in later stages of life. My feeling is that sometimes being a fan of horror is a kind of disease, an infection you get when you’re young, I remember clearly when I saw my first horror film I was so scared and repulsed I couldn’t sleep for nights on end…

DO: What was the film?

BY: The film was not actually very good; it’s called THE CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN… (both laugh)… But I also remember seeing THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and the skeleton fight in it: I was up for nights! I can still remember the nightmares about this skeleton, many of these early movies made me feel like this. There was this kind of nausea, and sometimes it feels like a drug: at first it makes you sick, and then you keep wanting that rush again. You keep wanting that drug. And it’s difficult as you get older, because by then it gets very predictable and nothing gives it to you any more. But when you feel it again, it’s delightful, at that point.

So, some of that is why I go to horror, and another reason that could be something is that I was brought up as a Roman Catholic in Panama. Here Catholic church is all about the transformative properties of the flesh. About pain and suffering and flesh changing, there’s a lot of blood and Devil and cannibalism – and there’s this transcendental feeling to the flesh. For this reason I think that the best horror films come from the Christian tradition, much as I love horrors that come from the East, I sometimes get the feeling that Asian horror is so multifaceted and it’s often fetishistic, but doesn’t root me the way Judeo-Christian horror does. I think we do better vampires, we do better werewolves. There’s something more gripping about it. It could be a misguided religiosity, that’s another answer to your question.

And then, there could be an aesthetic one: I’ve always been somebody interested in expressionism and surrealism when it comes to art, and I think that horror genre, like all fantastic genres, comes from the tradition of Melies as opposed to Lumiere: the tradition of artifice of stage, of magic tricks, of expressionism. And when you look at the really great films of German studio UFA, Fritz Lang, Murnau, then all the great Russian films before the ’30ies, they were all influenced by expressionism. And then surrealism came into play. I think that people who tend towards this kind of aesthetic in art tend to go for horror films, too. Going into horror films, I think it has a lot to do with the love for fantastic in general.

DO: Yes, your movies have always tended towards fantasy, perhaps with the exception of THE DENTIST movies, but even they are so over the top that no one can mistake them for realistic thrillers. It seems to me that you’re bored with reality, there is always something fantastic in your plots. And even the violence in your films, which tends to be pretty gruesome, is actually not the painful violence of pain and rape and torture, it is always over the top, fantastic and with a humorous tone to it. It’s not supposed to disgust you, to make you feel terrible.

BY: I like movies that are entertaining, and I think that entertainment can do whatever you want it to do. I see a horror movie as a kind of theme-park ride, like a rollercoaster ride. You get all: the nausea, the fear, the adrenalin – but you’re safe. I also think that when you get into the fantastic genre, it’s a superior genre of movie-making, much more superior to drama or films that try for realism. I think that films of the fantastic genre, with horror belonging to them, are much closer to dreams, and I think that this is what I look for in cinema, this dream-like experience. This also means that we are in a kind of fiction that has a deeper kind of reality then the so-called realistic representation has.

How much of your plots is actually derived from your dreams? Do you have as weird dreams as some of your movies are?

BY: I have very, very weird dreams and I dream every night, even many times. Sometimes they’re scary, and I’ve learnt to hold on to the scary ones, but their plots are difficult to hold on to. I think plot, or story structure, is one of the most difficult parts of movie-making. I try to grab onto the inspiration and the images and ideas from other people, not just myself, I’m always looking for collaborators, people who have crazy ideas, and then I hold onto the idea and try to find the plot, the logic behind it. Trying to find the story structure and make it into a dramatic narrative for a feature film, for 90 minutes, that’s the tricky part. So many films either make it or break it.

I think Hollywood’s done a good job of creating a story structure that’s communicable to every culture. But it also runs the risk of becoming so predictable that we find it banal and boring. Whereas so many European movies are so strong in the art house and more ambiguous parts of cinema, but they have a hard time taking that and fitting it into a narrative structure. And I’m not saying that it has to be a Hollywood one, but it has to be similar, and that’s difficult. Some people believe that the narrative and story structure are hardwired into all of us, it’s not as cultural as we want to think.

A lot of your films deal with the ‘body horror’, either bodies metamorphosing and turning into something new, or rotting and dismembered bodies like in your RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3. Hoes does that aspect of your films relate to your dreams, your interests, your Catholicism…? It seems to connect a big bulk of your films.

BY: I do think that it goes back to Catholic imagery. This is pretty apparent. I don’t know where this whole idea of body transformations in my movies comes from, but it certainly can have some roots in my Catholicism, since the crazy thing about it is that the flesh itself rises, and it’s full of cannibalism, and saints pulling off their flesh…

DO: And it has this whole cult of worshipping body parts of the saints as relics…

BY: There’s all of that but I know that body transformation to me represents magic, and when I first saw the old Universal’s werewolf movies I always waited for the transformation scene from man into a werewolf, which was done in stop-motion. For me that was the highlight of those films. I think part of the fascination with body alteration is the question: if the body is changed, if the flesh is changed, is it still human? I remember in the 50ies when I was watching those movies, it would be 80 minutes of waiting to see the monster’s face, and something about seeing the monster’s face also has to do with body transformation.

When we see a film like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or a gore movie, there is a kind of transformation from a body into something that’s ripped open and bleeding. In DAWN OF THE DEAD there was this idea of stretching skin, when the monster would bite a man and stretch the skin. I’ve always liked ALTERED STATES and the bumps going from beneath the skin, that’s what I always like to see in a movie. When I was a kid I had dreams of flesh sticking together. Something like in Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, where you also have the idea of the flesh being transformative.

Honestly, I don’t know what it’s really about, but I know that seeing pictures of people whose bodies are in some way distorted or are partially animals or devils or angels are part of my interest in the fantastic film. It could be a kind of a symbol of our own psychology. We all want to transform into something else. All I can think is relationships. For a movie like SOCIETY, where you have people “shunting”…

DO: Excuse me, did you invent that word?

BY: We invented that particular use in the film. It means switching from one course to another, for example if one of your veins is clogged and you have an operation in which they shunt the flow to another vein. I think the word “shunting” came from Woody Keith’s screenplay. But the idea of bodies melding together was actually mine. In the original script it was all about a blood sacrifice: they kill the kids and drink their blood. I loved the story because it had a sense of paranoia, but I wasn’t happy with the ending, it wasn’t interesting enough. I just thought: What would I like to see on the screen? And the image that came to me was – two bodies melding together. Then I thought: how can we make that happen, what’s the argument? What would be the logic behind this? So, little by little, we developed this idea of this big kind of orgiastic bodies melding together. Like I said, a lot of these horror films are based on surrealism and expressionism, and when I met Screaming Mad George, the first thing we did was look at Dali’s paintings. And you can see that the main image of the shunting comes from a Dali painting, I think it’s called ‘The Great Masturbator’.

I tried that also with the movie FROM BEYOND, which I produced: on the original poster, before the movie was made, we had a Dali painting of a man’s face that has no eyes, but in his eyes are replicas of his face, and so on. And the whole idea of FROM BEYOND is of these bodies twisting and becoming something else…

DO: And discovering new possibilities of their own bodies…

BY: Yes. And just by making random associations regarding your question, I think horror movies normally are identified with a teenage, adolescent audience. This is when sex and the notion of death appear to us.

DO: …And the bodies are changing.

BY: Yes, the body is literally changing. It’s a cliché to say that a teenage boy really understands the werewolf. Because he’s growing hair, his body is changing in odd ways, and he has these new drives that he can’t control. I think horror films are basically about sex and death, and this is the time of life when we deal with sex and death, when we’re 11, or 12, 13, 14… And only a few of us carry on this adolescent obsession into our later life and even make a living out of it.

I think if you try to take away sex and death from a horror movie, you don’t have a horror movie. People often ask me what is my definition of horror, how do I know if something is a horror movie, or a thriller, or whatever, and my quick stupid answer is: if it’s scary, then it’s a psychological thriller. But if you add fluids, like blood or goo or slime, now it’s a horror movie. And if you add metal, then it’s a Sci Fi. A horror movie has to have goo, has to have fluids, bodily fluids of some sort, and then by definition we are in the subject of body transformation. I can really question whether you can have a horror film without transformation. One could say that a ghost movie doesn’t have a transformation. Well, maybe, maybe not.

DO: You’re right. Even in what some would label a ‘psychological thriller’, like PSYCHO, you have Norman literally transforming himself into his mother, cross-dressing and assuming her identity…

Yes, and that also has blood, and it’s the first slasher movie. But yes, you’re right, this transformation part of it could be what all of this body distortion is about. It could be that psychologically we yearn for a transformation, for a change, hopefully upwards. This is what we try to express upon the physical flesh. And if you’re a Westerner, then you believe in the flesh. You’re not a Hindu who believes that flesh is Maya, unreal. Here we believe that the flesh is real. So, if we want to be free, we have to transform the flesh. And in this way you can see horror as an adolescent’s misguided spirituality.

DO: Many of your films were directly or indirectly inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. What was it about his writing that made you go back to it several times, from RE-ANIMATOR through its two sequels, plus FROM BEYOND and the NECRONOMICON omnibus…?

BY: The one responsible for making RE-ANIMATOR was, actually, Stuart Gordon, who had an idea for the TV series based on Lovecraft’s “Hebert West- Reanimator”. It is one of Lovecraft’s minor works, a little more accessible, a kind of a mad-doctor story. Since then we’ve worked on other Lovecraft’s stories, and I took the time to read just everything of his I could find and try to understand it. The funny thing about Lovecraft is that when you finish reading the story, if somebody asked you what the plot was, you couldn’t tell, all you know is how you felt while reading it. It’s very difficult to extract the structure from his stories.

I think that Lovecraft is a real giant in what we call weird fiction, or scary stories, and after E. A. Poe I think that he’s THE guy! Lovecraft’s influenced tons of movies you wouldn’t expect, like John Carpenter’s THE THING, it’s really based on AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. If you look at the HELLBOY movies by Guillermo del Toro, you can see Cthulhu there. So, he’s influenced so many directors, writers and comic artists in the same way that generations previously Poe did.

DO: So, what were the difficulties in adapting his stories, which are more atmosphere-bound than plot-bound? What attracted you to those in particular, and what were the possible dangers or traps in making them work as films?

IN RE-ANIMATOR, which is the most successful one, the original adaptation had already been done as the TV script by the time I read it. I think William Norris is credited with coming up with this ironic character that Jeffrey Combs is playing in the movie, which really has nothing to do with Lovecraft’s story. One of the things that are difficult with Lovecraft is that he never put any female characters in his stories, unless when they’re giving birth to monsters. He himself had a difficult time with relationships and you can see it in his stories, there’s no love interest in them, and in the movies you have to have a love interest. So, that was done in the RE-ANIMATOR by adding the female character Meg, by making Dan the narrator and protagonist. Then, bringing the story up to date, since Lovecraft not only wrote in the 1930ies, but also made everything take place even much before that.

The first script actually ended very early in what is now the final movie: it ended when Halsey got killed. My inspiration, and what I tried to insist with Stuart and his writers team, was the episode with the guy carrying his head around, because I remembered Vincent Price carrying his own head in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. And I was a huge fan of the Roger Corman Poe series. For me, this was what really got me going. On the second picture, I was more interested in the weird doodling with the body parts that Lovecraft referred to in the story.

DO: I’m glad you mentioned that, since together with the notion of the cosmic horror in Lovecraft’s writing, there was also the ‘body horror’: the large-scale horror and the most private horror, together. Bodies in his stories are not merely cut up and butchered, but are very often undergoing changes, transformations, becoming weird and strangely, monstrously beautiful. You were lucky to have the budget and creative special effects people to make all of that work. Otherwise you end up being goofy instead of scary. The whole point of his kind of horror is not only to scare you, but to create a sense of something awesome, and this awe is where horror and fascination merge. Can you tell me a little bit about special effects in those films, especially in FROM BEYOND, where – according to some critics – they went overboard? And how much of a creative input did you have on Stuart Gordon’s films based on Lovecraft? How similar were your ideas to Gordon’s?

BY: I think that Stuart Gordon is an incredibly talented director, started as a theater director, and RE-ANIMATOR was the first movie for both of us. The budget was very small, under one million dollars. He always does what he wants, but we’ve always had a lot of fun working together. Our ideas are very similar in the sense that we both like excess. With RE-ANIMATOR we went with a number of versions of the script, based on how extreme it was, did it go far enough. I thought that if the movie was not good, then at least it would be shocking. But since Stuart is so talented the movie turned out very good as well.

When we moved to FROM BEYOND, that’s still a pre-digital age, and it was very difficult to do monsters. In fact, when we decided on that story, we thought that it had this machine in it that would sell it. We basically used the Lovecraft story by the main titles. The whole Lovecraft’s story takes place in the prologue to that movie, and then it becomes a kind of action movie with explorers into this other dimension. For example, the great monster at the end was our attempt to present a shoggoth from Lovecraft’s stories, based on the drawings of Bernie Wrightson. Today you can really realize his visions. Back then everything had to be plastic, and was very clumsy, but we had a lot of fun doing it.

I co-wrote the story adaptation with Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli, but only Dennis Paoli wrote the screenplay. They came with this Dr Pretorius, who is taken from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and who inaugurates the new world of gods and monsters. This character was not in the short story, but he exemplified the theme of a man for whom the senses are not enough, who must go further – this became the theme of that movie. And we took from the short story the idea of the pineal gland as something which enables one to see another dimension. And the gimmick is, if you can see them, they can see you, and they’re hungry.

I think it was a great writing done by the screenwriters. Today when you watch it, the effects seem clumsy. We had to make giant lamprey worms. Today you could do it digitally and it’d look really great. We had to actually build it, and it doesn’t move very much. These types of effects tend to be tricky.

The idea of pineal gland coming out of Jeffrey Combs’s forehead – he always complained that we’re giving him a “dog dick” in his forehead, and we assured him that it wasn’t that. This kind of thing would also be much easier today; we had to put him a kind of helmet on his head with a mechanism to move the “gland”. I think those movies work more because of the good writing and directing than because of the effects. In BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR we had to make the small fingers-creature with stop-motion, today you could easily do it digitally. But I think there is a kind of charm in puppetry.

DO: You were also involved in the omnibus NECRONOMICON, both as a producer and a director of the third and, if I may say, the wildest and weirdest story + the wraparound segments in which Jeffrey Combs plays Lovecraft himself. You told me previous to this interview that you wanted to experiment with that film, that your primary concern was not the blockbuster success but more along the lines of pushing the envelope. So, can you please tell a bit more about your intentions with that particular film? How did you come up with the other two directors (Christophe Gans and Shusuke Kaneko) and how did you coordinate them to make a unity out of the three stories?

Well, I don’t know if it actually turns into a whole. The idea was to make a movie using an Asian director, a European director and an American director. The original scheme of financing was: I was trying to get half the money from Asia, half the money from Europe and then, theoretically, I could maintain the other third, but… the fun of it was to let each of the directors do what they wanted. There was no inclination to do anything other than translate the scripts they had into English, and then shoot it in LA.

Christophe Gans was very much interested to make a Roger Corman E. A. Poe type of movie and I think his movie is the most sophisticated. Shusuke Kaneko came together with the producer Taka Ichise, who later created all of these J-horror films like THE RING, THE GRUDGE, DARK WATER etc. But this was before those films, when he could barely speak English. He actually directed some second unit footage on that episode. Shusuke Kaneko is now very popular in Japan for his GAMERA movies about the giant turtle, and for the DEATH NOTE movies. Each of them selected their story, and then Brent Friedman, the American writer, rewrote them so that they work as a more traditional Hollywood storytelling.

The story I did was, actually, THE WHISPERER IN THE DARKNESS, believe it or not, and I tried very hard to stick with the themes of it, I didn’t care for the actual elements of the story. Sometimes I think that’s the best way to do Lovecraft. In most of his stories it’s pretty hard to actually take the plot and reproduce it (in a film). Because the plot is often impossible to identify, it’s all in a character’s mind.

There is a Lovecraft film festival in Oregon, where amateur filmmakers present their short films and you can buy them on the internet, I think they’re called ‘Lurker Productions’ or something like that. What’s interesting is that real hardcore fans are complaining about DAGON or RE-ANIMATOR saying they’re not pure enough or that they veer too far off Lovecraft, but the trouble is they’re not real filmmakers, and that’s tricky: when they try to make it the way it is in the book, it’s amazing how boring it is! You see a bunch of people walking around, thinking.

DO: Are there some Lovecraft’s stories that you’d like to do but haven’t so far? Some future Lovecraft adaptation that we might expect from you?

BY: I don’t have any Lovecraft scripts that I’m trying to make at the present, but the great one to do would be THE CALL OF CTHULHU. As the matter of fact, people often send me scripts of Lovecraft’s stories. Normally they’re not professional screenwriters and the scripts are not very good, but I did receive at least 3 or 4 complete CALL OF CTHULHU scripts, and I’ve thought about that story and how one could actually adapt it. One that’s much easier to do would be THE DUNWICH HORROR.

DO: Your career covers more than two decades. How have the times changed for you, both as a producer and director? It appears that nowadays it’s much easier to make movies, but on the other hand, there seem to be some difficulties that were not there in 1985 when you produced RE-ANIMATOR.

BY: The industry has changed tremendously. It has changed. When I started it was the era of independent video, and financing was relatively easier, almost all the video money was going to independent producers. Majors hadn’t discovered it yet. But then they discovered it and started consolidating, and it became harder to make something independently, to be in with the big guys.

Later DVD came along, which gave a whole new boost to the video market. What’s happening now is that video and DVD are flat, dead due to the piracy on internet, and right now there are so many other ways to be entertained than to go to the movies or to put on a video. I think the industry is having very difficult times right now, especially for the low end where I’m at.

Big studios are finding that they’re gonna have to build big cinemas with 3-D, Imax, to make a big spectacle out of it, and we’ve seen these huge blockbusters, like the new BATMAN movie, so there’s a certain segment of the industry that’s doing well, perhaps, but I think in general it’s very, very tough.

DO: Is there any bright light in the tunnel?

BY: Well, now anybody can make a movie. You can take a high end HD camera and get the Final Cut Pro, the same things that professional filmmakers use, you can get that program for sound effects, Pro Tools, you can have the means to make the movie. But again, as I often tell people who tell me they’re using the same camera that George Lucas used to make the new STAR WARS movies, I say: “Yeah, I’ve got the same paints and canvas that Da Vinci had – the same ones! Wow! Wanna buy my painting?” (laughter)

So eventually it all comes down to the storytelling talent of the individuals. And one of the dangers of the moviemaking today is that it’s too easy to make a movie today, very cheap, very democratic, but what this means is that, unlike when I began, you don’t have to have any professionals involved. When I began, I was the only one non-professional. You had to have professionals involved because there were things that only a professional could do. You couldn’t mix a movie without going to a sound mixing studio. A professional one.

Today you can mix the movie in your bedroom. In your car, if you want. You can cut the movie in your bedroom. You can shoot the movie in your bedroom. (laughter) You don’t need to know anything about lighting the set. With the new cameras what you see is what you get. So, it is a two-sided coin. On one hand it means anybody can make a movie, any fool with his fool friends, but on the other, the movie industry is undergoing a big transformation, and I think the very idea of what a movie is gonna change. Whether we should lament the past – it’s questionable. I think maybe we shouldn’t.

DO: Where do you see yourself in this present moment?

BY: I see myself as somebody who’s growing older, and having a hard time competing with the young energy and I also must say, unfortunately, we don’t have that many ideas, any of us, we have very few ideas. And then we try to depend on craft. We’re developing craft rather than ideas. And this is where I have to go. One of the things that I try is take advantage of my experience.

DO: Can you briefly tell me a bit about your new production company in Indonesia?

BY: Yeah, I’m trying to develop a line of films in Indonesia. Mainly because one of my partners has a business there, and we’re gonna try to make movies there. One of the things that also attract me to that is one of the ways I try to get past my own limited imagination is to collaborate with different people in different cultures. When I collaborate with them I feel sometimes the mix gives us something new. So, there is a whole new culture, a whole new mythology, new scary things, so that I feel that just by being there, working with different people, I will be able to do new interesting things.

DO: Can you tell us some titles or ideas you’re working on at this time?

BY: Well, we’ve just finished one that’s called TAKUT, or in English, FACES OF FEAR, and it’s an omnibus of 6 short films by 6 different Indonesian directors, all in Indonesian language, scary films, very low budget. It’s a kind of an experiment to see what we can do with the local talent. Now we’re beginning a film called AMPHIBIOUS, about a giant sea scorpion, that I’m going to direct, and we’re also developing a film for Richard Stanley to direct, about giant komodo dragons. So, we have a few films in development and we want to make 3 or 4 films a year.

DO: Since Richard Stanley is one of my favorite living directors, I must ask some more about that komodo film.

BY: Well, this is something that’s very new, we’re developing the script now, and he’s just agreed to work with us on it, so I’m looking forward to making something interesting with him.

DO: It’s not his script, right?

BY: No, he’s developing it with another writer.

DO: Will it be made this year, or…?

BY: At the beginning of next year.

Finally, there’s been a rumor that there’s a FROM BEYOND remake in the works by Shoreline Entertainment. Any comment on that?

BY: Regarding the FROM BEYOND movie – looks like it is not a remake of the movie I produced, although the poster has something in common. Anyway, I have no ownership of the original FROM BEYOND, so – whatever.

Mr. Yuzna, thank you very much and all the best with your new movie projects!

Below: A scene from Brian Yuzna’s 1989 movie “Society”
Brian Yuzna's Society