Monday, November 9, 2009
Independent Dead: A Conversation with J.R. Bookwalter
J.R. Bookwalter needs little introduction to horror fans. His first feature-length film, The Dead Next Door is a legend in the world of independent horror. But he didn’t stop there! J.R. has been producing, writing, directing, editing and more in the world of independent horror for the last 20 years! Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing J.R. about his long and varied career!!
What inspired you to become a director of genre material?
J.R.: My mother claims to have been watching DARK SHADOWS on television when I was a baby, so I like to blame her, much to her chagrin! (laughs) I was more of a sci-fi nut in my youth, lots of Godzilla and Ultraman, LOST IN SPACE, that sort of thing... and of course when STAR WARS came out in 1977 that inspired me to actually want to make movies. But I switched gears to horror and splatter after seeing photos from DAWN OF THE DEAD in the first issue of FANGORIA magazine... those blew my mind and the next thing you know, I was faux killing all the neighborhood kids and filming it on Super-8mm. (laughs)
Is there any one horror film or director that stands apart as being the most influential on your work?
J.R.: No doubt, George A. Romero and DAWN OF THE DEAD... it took a little while before I was able to actually see that movie after reading about it and seeing the photos, but when I did, it didn't disappoint me. I recall one of my many viewings, I convinced my grandmother and her friend to take me to see it at the drive-in, and I brought my tape recorder along and recorded the audio. For whatever reason, I did that a lot as a kid and it was great to inspire my own ideas... of course, today it seems silly since every movie is easily available within hours of its release, but this is the kind of stuff we had to do as a child in the late '70s. Like many fledgling filmmakers, Romero's work at the time really spoke to me in many ways... besides being great, fun movies, he was doing stuff in Pittsburgh which was less than 2 hours away from me, so that told me that it was possible to make movies anywhere.
My favorite film of your's is The Dead Next Door. Can you tell us a little about the making of that picture?
J.R.: It was a grueling, 4-year odyssey... but one of the best experiences of my life that has probably not been topped by all of the other films I've made since. It started out as a little $8,000 movie shot on VHS video and wound up costing much more and being shot on Super-8mm film... the funniest part about it is that I was just a 19-year-old kid with 40 or 50 short films under my belt, and here I was commandeering a cast & crew of upwards of 50 people ranging in age from 12 all the way into their 50's and 60's, not to mention over 1,500 zombie extras. It was a huge undertaking, but I was young and full of piss & vinegar... determined not to say no. There's something great about being so young and naive and idealistic, before the film business really became a "business"... in many ways I miss those days, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that's for sure.
Is there any chance we will ever see a Dead Next Door 2?
J.R.: Never say never... I've come close a couple times with a script called DEAD FUTURE, but the budget wasn't right or people wanted to tinker with the project too much or whatever, so I chose to walk away rather than not get to make the movie I want to. My only interest in making a sequel is if it's a larger budget than the first one and if I have the same amount of control over it that I did on the original. A few years ago I came up with a prequel idea that I actually like a lot more... it's tied directly into the first film where the sequel was a whole new story with a few threads to the first one, but we'll see.
You have acted in some films as well. What was it like to portray a zombie in Day of the Dead?
J.R.: I should clarify that I do not consider myself to be an actor, at all! (laughs) It was just something I always did on my short films out of necessity, you'd always be short an actor so you'd have to step in and do it yourself. DAY OF THE DEAD was an exception... I was at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh at the time and had tried to get on the crew as a production assistant, but the schedule didn't work out because my classes were 4 hours a day in the afternoon and they were shooting way out in Beaver Falls, which was practically back in Ohio. So, they asked if I'd like to come out and be an extra and of course I said "Hell yes!" My roommate and I made the trek... it was a long day of mostly sitting around in zombie makeup waiting for something to happen, but once we actually shot it was great fun. In hindsight, the experience was great for when I'd embark on THE DEAD NEXT DOOR, because I had some idea of how best to wrangle the zombie extras and keep them entertained.
You have served as editor, actor, producer, even special effects technician on a number of films. Is there a discipline that you enjoy more than others?
J.R.: I can tell you that my least favorite is producing, which is ultimately what I have probably done the most! (laughs) Everyone wants to be a producer, but to me it's a glorified production assistant with a nice title and maybe a better paycheck... but it's a lot of responsibility. Probably editing is my most favorite... while I started my so-called career wanting to write & direct, I found myself enjoying the post-production aspects of the process more than anything else, probably because you have the least about of bullshit to deal with. Everyone else wants to be on set calling "Action" and "Cut", but believe me, that's a miserable experience more often than not... dealing with cast & crew egos, being on location in some remote place without adequate food and restrooms, and worst of all, you're at the mercy of the elements in your effort to get your vision onto the screen. It's great fun and very rewarding when it works, but in my experience those times are few and far between, sadly.
What do you feel about the current state of horror films, in particular the remake craze?
J.R.: Not much... I've only seen a few of those flicks and they don't seem very inspired. I wanted to scream out loud when I saw the recent NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake trailer... they've even stolen shots right from the original film, so what's the point? I've always held the belief that you should remake a movie that had a great idea but lacked the cash to pull it off effectively, something like BASKET CASE, maybe. But then I see these remakes like THE WIZARD OF GORE and IT'S ALIVE and wonder, why bother? They're not even as interesting as the original movies.
What advice would you give to anyone contemplating a career in lower budget genre films?
J.R.: It's a very different time than when I started out... to a large degree, the Internet has taken a lot of the fun out of this business. While it's great to have everything so handy and just a click away, it takes some of the mystery out of it somehow. I mean, how can anyone appreciate something when it's just a Google search away? I know I sound like an old man or something, but back in my day, if you wanted something bad enough, you really had to dig to find it, so you appreciated it that much more. It's kind of the same thing with the way these movies are made now... digital video has become so readily available that anyone can do it, which is great, but it's also clogged the market with movies that probably should never have seen the light of release. Anyway, a "career" in low-budget movies is a relative term... it's nearly impossible to make a living unless you diversify and do more than one thing. In my case, I've made far more money producing and editing than I ever did writing or directing, so you have to be prepared to starve for your art or find some other way to pay the bills.
What projects can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
J.R.: Good question! I've kind of semi-retired from production the last few years, mostly to run my DVD distribution business but also to start a family (my wife & I recently had our first kid). I keep my hand in things by doing a lot of freelance post-production work, and recently I executive produced a few movies for my Tempe Video label as well (KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE (2007), FOREST PRIMEVAL, POISON SWEETHEARTS and PLATOON OF THE DEAD). 2010 will be an interesting year because there are a lot of changes coming in the DVD biz, so I won't be counting on that to keep food on my table in the future. We shall see!
Any final message for our readers?
J.R.: Always have to give thanks for the folks who have discovered my movies... without you I certainly wouldn't have stuck it out for all these years! So thanks and stay sick!
To find out more about J.R.’s projects head here http://www.jrbookwalter.com !!