What kinds of jobs did you do while you were a struggling filmmaker?
The first job I had after graduating NYU was working as an assistant editor and eventually sound editor on the low budget exploitation film, “Mother’s Day” in 1979/1980. I saw a post on the bulletin board seeking production assistants and called to get a meeting with the director, Charles Kaufman. We talked about horror films for a while and he seemed to enjoy the conversation but informed me I didn’t fit any of the roles. I told him I wasn’t auditioning as an actor and wanted to work on the crew. He sent me to editor, Dan Lowenthal, and I got hired as his assistant. In post-production Dan and Charles got stuck on a decapitation scene. The special effects were so cheesy it was laughable rather than scary. I asked them to let me work on it that night. I re-cut the sequence to make it faster and put in the sound effect of a watermelon chopped with a knife. Charles screened it the next day and was satisfied so I became the sound editor for the movie. After it was completed, Charles sent me to his brother, Lloyd Kaufman, who ran an indie company called, Troma, Inc. I worked there for six years as their post-production supervisor, editing sexploitation and exploitation product. In 1987, I left to start my own film company to make and market low budget features called New Wave Film Distribution, Inc. Since then I’ve produced, written, edited and directed five features including “Space Avenger”, “Head Games”, “Run for Cover in 3-D”, “Unsavory Characters” and “Soft Money”. I also co-sponsored some festivals including Technicolor classics at the Paramount Center of the Arts and an Israeli 3-D retrospective in Tel Aviv. I really enjoyed putting on shows. It’s how I define cinema.
Why did you want to become a filmmaker and how early were you bitten by the bug?
I used to get bitten by a lot of mosquitos in drive-ins but still loved watching movies on their gigantic screens. I guess that’s where it started. All kidding aside, it was the large screen theatres in the sixties and seventies that made me want to become a director. I enjoyed the entire moviegoing experience which is why I wrote a book about it a few years ago. I would sit in the first few rows of cinemas where the enormous image overwhelmed me. I would not have gotten the filmmaking bug based on the small screen multiplex experience in the eighties. Aside from Hollywood movies, I liked the work of independent filmmakers like George Romero and Herk Harvey. Even though they had limited funds, pictures like “Night of the Living Dead” and “Carnival of Souls” had interesting themes and were very stylish. I admired indie filmmakers who didn’t follow a formula and exceeded expectations. I’ve tried to pattern my career on them.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?
I’m also a writer which is what I would’ve done full time if I didn’t make movies. In between productions I wrote “Technicolor Movies” in 1993 and “The Moviegoing Experience 1968-2001″ published by McFarland and Company. I’ve also done articles for “The Perfect Vision”, “Wideguage Film and Video Monthly” and “Film History” magazines.
One of my personal favorites of yours is “Alien Space Avenger”. I noticed some direct connections between “Alien Space Avenger” and Martin Scorsese, such as a ‘special thanks’ in the end credits. Gina Mastrogiacomo who played Ginny was later cast in “GoodFellas” and producer Robert A. Harris also produced “The Grifters” along with Scorsese. How did Scorsese become affiliated with you and your film?
My connection to Robert A. Harris and Martin Scorsese was through film collecting. We were all Technicolor buffs. That’s how I met Bob Harris who got involved with “Space Avenger” as the co-producer along with Ray Sundlin. I had worked for Ray on “Mother’s Day”. ‘Bob and Ray’, as the crew called them, did a great job as producers securing good locations and a supportive staff. Here’s a tid bit for film buffs. The publisher’s office in “Space Avenger” was actually Bob’s place at the time where he restored “Lawrence of Arabia”. You’ll also see a poster of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” which was another Harris restoration. Around the same time, Scorsese hired me through a mutual friend to inspect his film collection which was my brief contact with him. I was able to screen many of his rare Technicolor prints which helped me during the research of my book. After I travelled to China to make dye transfer prints of the completed film, I gave copies to Bob and Martin. I kept two myself and used the rest for bookings around the country. Scorsese had already known Gina Mastrogiacomo and wanted to use her on a previous film but she lacked production experience. After screening my film he hired her to appear in “GoodFellas”.
Did you do any on set work for “GoodFellas”?
I didn’t work on “GoodFellas”. I thought it was an excellent film and Gina gave a good performance as Ray Liotta’s girlfriend.
Lynwood Sawyer, one of your co-writers on “Alien Space Avenger” told me “It took an Aussie to grok the quirkiness of the film” because I’m an Aussie and I think the film is far more intelligent than people gave it credit for. Lynwood Sawyer then said “American reaction to the film was straight forward and generally missed the point.” Do you agree with this and if so why do you think it went over the heads of American audiences?
Here’s how Lynwood Sawyer got involved. Film financier, William Kirksey, read my script and offered to help raise money. He brought in Lynwood to polish my draft. He did an excellent job adding satire and nuance to my screenplay. We discussed whether audiences would get everything we were doing and decided that there was enough action to maintain viewer interest even if they didn’t pick up on the rest. Lynwood has a cameo as a businessman reading a newspaper in the bordello sequence.
Do you feel the film was not widely seen enough and are there plans for a DVD release down the track?
Distributing my own movie was very difficult but I managed to get a number of dates on a regional basis. “Space Avenger” played theatrical engagements in New York, Los Angeles, Virginia and DC. It was featured in a number of festivals and screened at the AFI. I got a lot of coverage from the Technicolor revival and articles appeared in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. I was interviewed on Entertainment Tonight by my former college instructor, Leonard Maltin. The film was released on VHS by AIP in the nineties. They changed the title to “Alien Space Avenger” for the home video market. Currently the rights are tied up so there’s no planned DVD release.
In a very funny cameo, how did porn star Jamie Gillis wind up working on “Alien Space Avenger”?
While I was re-editing some porns in the early eighties I noted that Jamie Gillis was one of the few X rated stars who had acting ability. I thought it would be a funny cameo to have him literally ‘screwed to death’ by one of the aliens in the story. Ray contacted him and we shot his scenes in one day. Jamie was fun to work with and told us outrageous stories about his X rated productions which had the crew in stitches. He was good in the role and had a sense of humor about his career.
I picked out one of my favorite actors Dayton Callie who turned up uncredited in “Alien Space Avenger” as a Sleazy Navy Veteran and I further discovered he was a P.A. also. Do you remember him working on the film and how did he become involved?
Dayton Callie was a friend of associate producer, Frank Calo, which is how he ended up on the film. He was a hard worker and a real character, telling dirty jokes to the maintain crew morale during the long shooting hours. I asked him if he would like to play the role of the raunchy Navy veteran and he said “Sure…he’s my kinda guy”. The “seaman” joke was one of his zingers.
What do you usually do during an extended absence between films?
Film productions take about two to three years each. The first year involves writing and re-writing the screenplay until it works. Since my scripts are all original and not based on published books, this takes time. Then comes the pre-production phase which involves location scouting, casting and storyboarding the entire film. The shoot itself is only three to four weeks but the editing can take upwards of six months to a year with the negative matching, color timing, mixing, soundtrack recording and marketing campaign all adding additional months to the project. Upon completion I then have to submit it to film festivals, book it in theatres and sell the movie to home video and foreign markets. While all this is going on, I’m developing my next screenplay or writing film books. I recently expanded into illustrating Children’s picture books. I did the cartoon artwork for “Animal Kingdumb”.
You helmed a picture entitled “Unsavory Characters”, which I believe is a near perfectly shot film-noir, especially the black and white footage which looks like it came straight from the forties. How was that achieved?
Thank you for your comment on “Unsavory Characters”. The cinematographers and I did a lot of research on how to generate the ‘film noir’ look. We studied the lighting designs of films like “Out of the Past” and “Double Indemnity”. Basically, it’s a rejection of the classic studio look of the forties. Traditionally, the cameraman would put a key light on the star’s face and a little bit of backlight on their hair. The key light would throw shadows behind the performer which were carefully scrimmed out to give a picture perfect portrait of the lead performer which made them look very attractive. Film Noir lighting is quite different. The key light on the actor’s face is scrimmed down so that only part of their features are lit. The rest are dark to give them a sinister appearance. Rather than removing the shadows in the background, they are left there to generate a sense of danger. What is lurking in those dark parts of the frame? After some testing and experimentation, we were able to simulate this look for the black and white portions of the film. Perhaps the best compliment I received was when associate producer, Nelson Page, arrived on location and said, “This looks like an RKO set from the forties”. One aspect of production that is very important to me is the music score. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find talented composers for my pictures beginning with “Space Avenger”. Richard Fiocca did the tracks for that movie and “Head Games”. Gary Schreiner did a John Barry type score for “Run for Cover”. I used three composers for “Unsavory Characters”, Mike Leslie, Buddy Booker and Michael Boldt. All were talented jazz musicians who added to the atmosphere.
How was the film critically received?
Thus far “Unsavory Characters” has received three good reviews.
Get the rest of the interview in part three of RICHARD W. HAINES: UNSUNG HERO OF UNSUNG CINEMA>>>
Posted on October 14, 2005 in Interviews by Daniel Bernardi
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