If you are a fan of Full Moon’s Pupptet Master series, then you hopefully should know that director David Schmoeller was the guy that started it all. But he also made a few other great genre pic, including getting to work with the infamous Klaus Kinski. This interview was conducted at the Cinema Wasteland show on March 31st, 2012.
Kitley’s Krypt: What made you decide to get into filmmaking?
David Schmoller: I started when I was 15 years old when I was going to boarding school. I wrote a poem and gave it to one of my roommates who was an editor of sorts and he said I should be a writer. No one had ever said that to me before. I think I wanted to be a tennis player at the time, but was an intriguing idea. This roommate was Tommy Lee Jones. He wasn’t an actor then, just a student then but he was headed for that. He was a couple of years older than I was and we had a lot of respect for him. So I started wanting to be a writer and then went to college majoring in journalism. I went to the University of Texas in Austin, living in this apartment complex. Some of my friends got into the film department and they were talking about it which sounded really cool; a lot more fun than what I was doing in journalism. So I just switched my major. It wasn’t anything like seeing a great movie or that I wanted to make a film, I sort of just wanted to have a cooler major.
KK: You also studied in Mexico under Alejandro Jodorowsky, correct?
DS: My first year of under graduate school, I went to a university in Mexico City and that was when I just wanted to be a writer. I was going to anything that I could go to with writers and Jodorowsky was a playwright at the time. I don’t know how but I just stumbled onto this theater and started to go to his rehearsals. He had made Fando and Lis (1968) but I’m not sure if he had made El Topo (1970) at that time. I never saw him make a film; I only saw him do plays. He was a pretty amazing character. He had a cartoon strip, he was an actor in all of his plays, and he wrote and directed them. But I didn’t know him as a filmmaker. I wasn’t into film yet. I was actually thinking of being a playwright at that time.
At that time, I was an interpreter for ABC Sports during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City; I met my future wife then. And her godfather was Luis Buñuel. So I met him a few times when he would come over to their house. He was famous for making martinis. He had just come back from doing a Catherine Deneuve movie and had all kind of stories about her. Again, I didn’t even know who he was. I wasn’t really a filmmaker then. I knew he was a famous director but I hadn’t seen any of his movies. Even when I was in film school in UT, and I went into this big hall with a friend, there was this old guy with a black patch on his eye. I asked my friend who this guy was. Turned out it was John Ford. I didn’t even know who he was! So it was in film school when I started seeing movies for the first time, like when they had an Italian series, and so on. That was the first time that I said “Wow…movies are really great.” I was not one of those people who started making movie when they were 10. But I did go to film school and it was there where you have to discover how creative you are. I started making interesting films that got attention, got the attention of my professors. I made 7 short films in film school and I paid for my first one. All the other ones were paid by somebody else, like grants and things.
KK: The one you did for your thesis, This Spider Will Kill You (1976), what was your inspiration for that?
DM: I took an experimental video class and it was the first year there was a recorder that Sony came out with. It was this 50 lb. recorder that you wore on your back with a cable that went to this video camera. Each of us got a reel of this video tape that was 30 minutes long and each week we’d go out and shoot something. One week I was at JC Pennys and they had this whole room of mannequins that were so bizarre. If you look at the infants, they had a mouth, a nose and eyes and ears, but by the time they were three they started losing features. By the time they were adults, there were was no nose, no mouth, just like an indentations there. So I did this experimental video sort of shooting these mannequins and humans. So that was where I really started paying attention to mannequins. That was about midway through my studies. I just came up with this story about a blind man who had been abandoned by his parents. They were actors and had left their blind son with this caretaker while they toured. He lived in this attic with all these mannequins. He’s lonely so he starts talking to this female mannequin and she comes alive, in his head. He created a mother mannequin, a father mannequin, and so on. He talks to them and they talk back to him. He brings this girl in and the mother is really upset about it. But they’re just mannequins. When we see the girl from his point of view, she’s a live person. The first time the caretaker sees him bringing her into the room, he had asked the girl mannequin to come with him into his room. The caretaker just sees him as he’s dragging a mannequin across the hallway into his room. At the end of it, she has turned on him and is trying to kill him. He decides he has to kill her instead. He then pulls out a gun, as the caretaker walks into the room and asks him what is he doing. We see him walk over to the mannequin that is sitting up against the wall, which is what we see from the caretaker’s point of view. But when he starts talking to her, it’s a real woman. It goes back and forth, where he puts the gun to the woman’s head in his point of view, but the mannequin’s head from the caretaker’s point of view, and then fires. We see the mannequin head shatter. The caretaker walks over and picks up the half of the mannequin face and then it starts bleeding. So that was kind of like Twilight Zone.
So it had nothing to do with Tourist Trap. The story is not the same at all. But when I wrote Trap with Larry Carrol, my partner at the time, we were really modeling it after Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not so much the story, but in part where it is a group a people in a car that end up at this isolated place where they all get killed. So the structure is the same. We got the script to Charlie Band and he said “I liked it but how do I know you can direct?” so I showed him This Spider Will Kill You, which just showed that I could make mannequins come alive so I could do what was in the Trap script.
KK: So when you were writing Tourist Trap, the idea of the mannequins coming alive was in there from the start?
DS: Yea, it was a good, scary gimmick. We just borrowed the structure from Chainsaw, which was common theme; a group of young people out on a trip and they go to the cabin or whatever and stuff happens. We were following the formula, with the ‘sweet girl’, and the rest of the typical characters.
KK: The mannequins really set this movie apart because they are very creepy and really set the mood for the movie. How was it like to work with Chuck Connors?
DS: He was fine and he really cared about the movie. Which is different with some of these actors who I’ve worked with before, ones that had been a big star at some point in their career, but are now doing smaller films. It’s got to be like a knife in their soul and I understand that. But Connors was very similar with that, since he’d been a big TV star, but he was not unhappy to be there. He saw the horror film as a chance for him to be the next Vincent Price. He wanted to re-invent his career and become a horror film star, like Donald Pleasance.
KK: Since growing watching Connors on TV, I could never see him as being scary. But he really comes off as extremely creepy, especially when he’s acting along side the mannequins.
DS: I think he did a really good job. He was really easy to work with and I didn’t know anything about acting. This was the first time I was working with professional actors and he taught me a lot. The only problem was he was using cocaine at the time. Someone had said maybe that’s why he was crazy! Really the only problem was that it made him sweat, which we had to deal with that. Plus he wanted a case a beer at the end of the day, which is a lot of beer! But he’s not a trained actor. He was a baseball player and went right into TV. So while he didn’t have any technique, he had a lot of experience. Someone had asked me how did I direct him them, but he would ask me questions. For example, we were doing the ending of the movie where he gets the axe in the neck, and he asked me “Do you want me to do a Brody?” I said, “What a Brody?” So he explained that it was a theatrical term, where there was this famous actor in the theater who would do these exaggerated death scenes. His name was Brody. So the expression was to “do a Brody” was to do an exaggerated death scene. So I told him, “Yea…I think that sound great. Let’s do a Brody!” and he did this great long death scene and took a long time to die, which is what I wanted. So he asked me a lot of questions, “Do you want me to do this”, “Do you want me to do that?” He knew what his possibilities were and would offer them to me. He was very creative and would offer these choices for me.
KK: What do you remember of Robert Burns, who did the production direction?
DS: Robert was really good. I didn’t know him, even though we both from Austin. He had worked on Chainsaw. My producing/writer partner, Larry Carrol, was editing for Charlie Band, and he worked on Chainsaw, so he brought on Burns. Burns was not the classic production designer who draws and knows how to do blueprints and things. He was a hands-on, fix it kind of guy. He did all of the physical changes in the mannequins, where we opened their mouths, had the eyeballs that moved, the arm that came off. We had another guy do the rubber mask. If you look at the production design in CHAINSAW it is excellent. But Burns is a scrounger! He found all those chicken, and feathers and the bones, that is what he was good at. And he found all the mannequins! We had a lot of mannequins and we don’t know where he got them or how he got them for the money we had, because we had no money. He found some warehouse full of mannequins that someone was trying to get rid of and we got them for like nothing. That was a major gift, so his contribution was huge because we really needed to have a lot of mannequins for it to be as effective as we wanted.
I have a thing on my website, www.davidschmoeller.com, under Tourist Trap page, where I have a typed memo where I sent out to all the people who were working on the mannequins, like a mannequins manifesto! I was describing how I wanted the mannequins to be, and I gave rules. It is up on the website to give you an idea of what I was looking for.
KK: Your next horror film was Crawlspace, where you got to work with the legendary Mr. Kinski. Did you have any idea before working with him what you were in for?
DS: Not before we decided to use him. The back story to how that film came about was that Charlie had this apartment set in Italy that he had used for the movie Troll and he wanted to use it again, for obvious reasons. I had pitched a story to him years before, called The Peeper about a guy up in the crawlspaces, and he asked if I still had it, but I had sold it. So he asked if I could write something that is set up in an apartment building with crawlspaces. So I just went off and wrote the script. The first draft was about a Viet Nam veteran who had been a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for three years. He is released and goes back home. His wife has left him; his parents have died and left this apartment building. He’s lost the life that he had before he went to war. So he builds this prisoner of war camp in the attic out of bamboo and sets these traps. He’s trying to go back in time to get his life back. I turned in the draft and we were already prepping in Italy where the apartment building was. They were already built part of the bamboo attic, and built all these traps that I described. Charlie hadn’t read the script yet. So it was only a few weeks before we started shooting. Then Charlie read the script and said “I don’t think America wants to see a story about Viet Nam. What don’t we make him a Nazi?” I thought, oh okay…they don’t want to see a Viet Nam story but they do want to see yet another Nazi story? Right. He said “Right….change him to a Nazi and I’ll get you Klaus Kinski.” Okay I though, you get me Kinski and I’ll make him a Nazi. All you had to do to get Kinski was pay his $100,000 fee. So we got Kinski.
So as soon as we got him, I called up his agent and said I wanted to meet Kinski, and he just laughed. He told me there was an article in Playboy magazine about Kinski that I should read that before I should visit him. That is where I read all these nightmare stories. So no, I didn’t know anything about him.
KK: I’ve seen your short film Please Kill Mr. Kinski that you made about your working with him, but are you glad that you struggled through that and go the picture finished?
DS: Well, I’m glad I lived! It was not a pleasant experience at all and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. And I had no choice. There was sort of an ironic twist that happened. He got into six fist fights with my crew in the first three days. The Italian producer and I decided we had to replace him. The Italian producer really didn’t want to have this problem because Charlie would wire the money over weekly and it was always late. The Italian producer would have to cover it but he really didn’t have money to cover it. So if that problem became where the money was coming every two weeks, he wasn’t going to be able to cover it. And he could see with Kinski, we would go longer and longer and we were going over and over. We had a 20 day schedule and we ended up shooting 30 days. So that’s a 50% overage. But when we told Charlie that we had replace him, Charlie talked to the distributor who told him no, that you can’t replace him, that he’s not their problem, it was our problem. So Charlie said for us to do whatever we have to do. Now if the producer and the director have said that we can’t do this with this actor, and Charlie says do it anyway, it’s not on us. So I never had to worry about the schedule. We would go over more and more and more. I could actually do more work, shoot more takes. They weren’t counting. They knew it was going to go long and Charlie had decided he was going to pay. I’m always exactly on schedule but this wasn’t in my control anymore and that I could take my time.
KK: Were you able to discuss his character with him or give him any direction?
DS: Early on when I said “could we do another take”, he just exploded and just charged me. The crew sort of stopped him. He would not do another take. It had to be because the sound was bad or there was a problem with the camera. So we had these signals worked out where they would say “camera needs another one” if I needed another one. Because Kinski wouldn’t do it.
The other problem was that he would start dropping his lines or dropping whole speeches. He would say that we didn’t need this. The thing is that he didn’t think he spoke English very well and he was famous for doing that anyway. He would say “I don’t need to say this”, and I would say “No you a have to because it is about the plot” and he wouldn’t say it. And I had no control of it. So I would start to anticipate it and say “You know what, I don’t think we need this scene” and he would say “Yes we do” and then he would say every word. He was that contrary.
KK: What was the reason for making the short film Please Kill Mr. Kinski? Was it to let people know what it was like working with him?
DS: Well, I had told that story a lot. But there was this event in L.A. put on by John Pierson, who had a TV show at the time and it was anthology show where he went around in a mini-van all over the country picking up stories from filmmakers. He’d put them together, there’d be a 10-minute story, or a 15-minute story, or sometimes longer. So this was an event where he was showing clips and they already had a bunch of episodes. Midway point at this event, he opened it up to the audience during the intermission and you could write on a card an idea for a show. So I told the story about the problems I had with Kinski. And I was one of the ideas that won a T-shirt! So afterwards I called him and asked him if I could do this for the show and he wanted to see a treatment because I don’t see how he could it. So I just shot it and cut it together and then sent it to him and he put it on the air. I had all the material. I had the story, which was my experience with him. And I just put it into a short. That is how it happened. And it aired.
KK: Watching him in Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend, which is like a feature length version of your short, it is amazing to see this man in action and is just hard to imagine having to deal with him on a daily basis.
DS: There was a woman who’s been writing a blog about Kinski for years, who writes extensively about him. She emailed me and said “Weren’t you exaggerating a little bit?” And replied “Nope!” and she didn’t believe me. I don’t know how you couldn’t believe me because every little piece of footage of Kinski shows what he’s like. I have a 45 minute interview called Klaus Speaks which the videographer did, which I bought the rights to those when I made the Kinski piece. I just used the highlights. All of that stuff in there…that’s the real guy! So yea…extremely difficult to work with.
KK: While Crawlspace is sort of known as a slasher film, most all of the killings are done off screen. Was this intentional to make this different than a typical horror film?
DS: Well none of my films were ever slasher films until Puppet Master, and I was heavily criticized for that. I don’t know that I’m really a horror film director. I’m not comfortable with the genre. I was criticized for Crawlspace because it not being violent enough and for not seeing enough on-screen stuff. But it just wasn’t my temperament. But I had been criticized enough to say how was it to be really ultra violent. So on Puppet Master, I decided to get an X rating, even though contractually I had to deliver an R rating. Because of Stuart Gordon and Empire’s relationship with the ratings board, we knew what it took to get an R. So I knew that I could go as far as wanted to go and be extremely violent in Puppet Master and did and I got an X. And then we just trimmed it from there.
KK: Were you hired to write and direct Puppet Master? Was that based on an idea from Charles Band?
DS: Yes, Charlie already had a script that he and Ken Hall had written. I just came in and re-wrote it. I can only direct if I can re-write it in the language I use. Charlie knew that so he was fine with me re-writing it.
KK: Did you create some of the characters of the puppets?
DS: I created some of them. I pretty sure I created Leech Woman, but I have to go back to the original script. I don’t remember if Blade had a blade but I do remember I went to Dave Allen and gave him a picture of Klaus Kinski and I said let’s make him look like this. The thing with a film like Puppet Master, is you have to be able to come with puppets that you can actually bring alive and you have to figure out how to make them interesting and how to make the death scenes interesting. So I actually don’t remember which characters were there when I came on, which ones I changed, or which ones I modified, or which ones I created.
KK: Were you happy with the final results?
DS: When I started making the movie, I thought it was really stupid. Honestly, I needed the job. I had such other aspirations. I did not want to be doing a movie with puppets. But by the end of it, I was talking to the puppets, and directing them, because I was involved in the process. But I didn’t think it was a very good movie at all and was surprised it has done as well as it has. It actually did very well for Paramount. It was the highest rated direct-to-video release at that point. They were really happy, Charlie was happy, and financially it did well. I don’t know why, but oh well.
KK: Any interesting stories about any of the actors?
DS: I only had actor William Hickey, who played Toulon, for 8 hours. He flew in from New York and I had to do all of his scenes and all the stuff with him in 8 hours. So I met him in the makeup trailer, and he said “What voice do you want me to use?” I didn’t know that was a possibility! So I asked “Well, what do you have?” He said, “Well I got three voices. I got this, and then this….” So I said, “let’s go with B.” So he used this gravelly voice there. Very funny.
KK: Is working with puppets like working with children and animals? Is it difficult?
DS: It’s a lot easier than working with children. I just did a movie with a 3-year old, called Little Monsters. They do one take and they say, I’m bored. That’s it. When working with puppets, you’re talking to adult whose making it work.
KK: Tell us about your new film, Little Monsters.
DS: It is loosely based on a real event, the Bulger murder in 1993, where two 10 year olds killed a 3 year old. I think the thing that made it an international story the kidnapping was in a shopping mall and there were cameras all over the place. So the kidnapping was caught on camera. So it was just shocking that that two 10 ten year old boys kidnapped a little boy and killed him. Little Monsters is set in the US and takes the framework from the real event. The beginning of the film shows the murder, but then cuts to 8 years later and we see them released from juvenile, given new names, a chance to start over again.
KK: Obviously it is not really a horror movie but is it about them getting back to their lives?
DS: Yeah, one of them is going to college and the other has a job. We think one of them is the bad seed and we suspect that he’s going to derail the other one. So its following each of them trying to start over again and the problems they have and how one is succeeding and the other isn’t.
KK: Now that you are a film professor now, do you enjoy that more than the process of filmmaking?
DS: Well I still make movies but I’m really glad that I’m a professor and I do enjoy it a lot. I probably would not have made the last two feature films that I made if I were still in Hollywood.
KK: Do you teach more the process of film making or film history?
DS: I’m a basically a film production teacher, but I do teach a film study class on horror films, which is on the history and interpretations. I’ll certainly be the first one to say that society condemns the horror film and is critically of the horror film. I just an interview for a documentary in Austin where they were talking about the beginning of the VHS revolution. They were saying that the B filmmakers in Japan are really respected. I said well they are not here.
KK: Well, we keep trying to change that. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
DS: My pleasure.