Gavin Schmitt Interviews Director John McNaughton
In honor of the 30th anniversary of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, I had the pleasure of chatting with director John McNaughton on October 17, 2016. Beyond “Henry”, McNaughton is known for “The Borrower”, “Wild Things” and the Masters of Horror episode “Haeckel’s Tale”.
Although “Henry” has been discussed and analyzed countless times over the last three decades, hopefully we were able to shed some light on the film, as well as its aftermath. John was also kind enough to discuss some of his other projects, including two that as of 2016 are still works in progress.
GS: Whatever became of “Dealers in Death”, the Chicago gangland documentary you made before “Henry”?
JM: I would imagine the MPI company, who is now thriving, has a copy somewhere. Though, knowing how they lose things… they probably have masters, VHS cassettes, or something out there. I would be surprised if they didn’t have copies in some format. Well, you know it’s over 30 years old, so it’s probably out of print.
GS: Some of the filming for “Henry” was done with what’s today called guerilla filmmaking. What was the situation in Chicago like in the 1980s as far as getting permits and such?
JM: It was actually… well, a lot of it we just went and grabbed, but we actually cleared it with the police. We had $100,000, which doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was enough to shoot a film and pay a few people. But we contacted the police, and they more or less said if we were going to film in any high traffic areas to just pretend we never called them. They let the beat officers know so we wouldn’t be arrested or chased away.
There was one instance I remember, the scene where Henry and Otis get a camera and are photographing women on the street. We actually closed down the corner of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street. This is a pretty prominent intersection in Chicago, and we were able to do it with one cop and one squad car, for which we paid the city $110. That was a huge expense for us, but they shut it down so we could film Henry and Otis turning the corner in their car. Chicago was hungry for production, and the city was ready to help us out.
At the very end of the film, where Otis is dropped off, we were filming in what was then a very empty neighborhood, at least at night. It was the Webster Street Bridge near Ashland Avenue, which is insanely busy today. I still use it all the time. But someone saw us and thought we were really dumping a body, so the police showed up. But they were pretty cool and we didn’t really have any problems.
GS: Were there any low-budget tricks or shortcuts that helped you out later when you were working on bigger budget productions?
JM: Occasionally. The next picture I did, “The Borrower”, had a budget of $2.75 million. I was sort of shocked, because our crew on “Henry” was never bigger than three to five people. When I got to the set of “Borrower”, there were people all over and I didn’t know what they did. A lot of them did nothing.
In “The Borrower”, the story is about a giant insect from outer space, who is a cannibal and highly advanced. He was being punished by his own people, so they did the worst thing they could think of to do to a transgressor, which was to genetically modify him into a human being, the lowest form of life on earth. They do this and send him to earth as a punishment.
Tom Towles, who was Otis in “Henry”, was also in “The Borrower”, and cast as his son was Bentley Mitchum, who incidentally is Robert Mitchum’s grandson. They’re hunting deer at a forest preserve in Chicago, and lo and behold they stumble on this alien. His transformation didn’t go very well, and his head exploded, so he needs to borrow another one. Now I think I forgot the question, because I find myself getting into these long, loopy answers…
GS: I asked about filming shortcuts…
JM: Oh yes! So, here’s the deal. The monster rips the head off of Tom Towles, and once he puts it on his body, he looks just like Tom except that there’s a gigantic scar around his neck. His work shirt and neck are soaked in blood. So we took him for a walk in downtown Los Angeles. We set up a camera with a 400mm lens about a block away and stole some footage. It was night time, and the streets were filled with poor people. This was not Beverly Hills, especially in those days, and Tommy is walking down the street just covered in blood. Head to toe. And almost nobody batted an eye. We were a block away catching people’s reactions, and it’s one of my favorite scenes.
The unit production manager – whose name I will not mention here – was standing next to me, looking at the monitor, and he was really upset because he hated not having control. He would have preferred clearing the street, hiring extras, and all that. He looked at me, angry, and said, “I hate this kind of filmmaking.” I looked back at him and said, “I fucking LOVE this kind of filmmaking!” This pretty much described our working relationship throughout the production. We could have paid extras, but what’s better than real reactions from real people? Especially in downtown LA where the social milieu was pretty rough.
GS: Because both Henry and Otis were still alive when your film came out, did you get any blowback from law enforcement or victims’ families?
JM: No. Interestingly, Tracy Arnold – who plays Becky – was from some small town in Texas. I forget the name, but her contention was that one of her relatives was murdered and the killing was attributed to Henry Lee Lucas. Tracy is very smart and straightforward, so I take her word on that. But no blowback from families or law enforcement. They were both in jail forever by that point.
GS: On a similar note, other than Joe Coleman (who created the film’s poster), did you get the attention of anyone who was just a little bit too into the serial killer culture?
JM: (laughs) I would get letters occasionally from people, who… yeah, you’re exactly right. They “loved” serial killers and assumed that I shared that love. We didn’t share that. I think Michael Rooker got it even more, because he was so visible. People would accost him… well, not “accost” him, but come up to him in the streets and poor their hearts out to him about their love of serial killers.
GS: “Henry” has been cited as one of the films that inspired the NC-17 rating. How aware or involved were you with the MPAA during the rating’s creation?
JM: I was very much involved. It was quite a controversy, and I received calls to go on “Nightline”. This was about 1989, and we had “Henry”, Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Tue Me Up! Tie Me Down!” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” came shortly after. We all got X ratings. You might recall that “Midnight Cowboy” had an X rating and went on to win the Academy Award in 1970. Originally, X just meant that the film was for adults. There was G, PG, R and X.
But this was before the porn industry really took off in the 1970s. Then in the public imagination X meant “good stuff” and XX and XXX were even better, if you were into that. Of course, there’s not really any such thing as XX or XXX as far as the MPAA is concerned. That’s just hype. But, what porn did was change the X rating into something synonymous with pornography, because they dominated that rating. We, of course, argued that our films were not pornography, but serious films intended for adults. So, the MPAA after much angst came out with the NC-17 rating, which as it turns out, hurt you commercially almost as much as an X.
The majority of movies in America were shown at movie theaters in multiplexes in shopping malls. Incidentally, I think the demise of the shopping mall is imminent, but often in the contracts of those theaters the mall wouldn’t allow them to show anything beyond a PG or at most an R, because shopping malls were for families. So the rating of NC-17 can put about a 95% dent in your revenue.
GS: In other countries, specifically the UK, cuts had to be made for the film to be released. How involved were you with the editing process?
JM: Not at all. I think there were two mandated cuts. An initial cut, and a few years later they eased up on the cuts. Today in the UK it can be shown uncut, the original version. In America the film has never been cut, but in the UK my guess is it’s some sort of collaboration between the UK distributor and the board of censors.
For “The Borrower”, we brought the film to the American censors. It has some blood and violence so I was sort of expecting the worst, especially after the reputation “Henry” established for me. But the interesting part of the process is that the MPAA is not a government body, it’s not like the USDA grading beef. It’s a professional organization, not a government body. Unlike the UK, we don’t have a government censor. Likewise, the MPAA can’t actually tell you to cut anything, because then they’d be acting as censors, which isn’t really their job. It’s an odd process. They might say, “We have a problem.” But they can’t tell you how to cut or trim it, so you play this game with them. It’s not their fault, they’re not censors. I describe it as getting into a boxing ring blindfolded. You come out swinging, but you don’t even know who you’re swinging at. So you trim some frames and send it back… eventually you or them get worn out and capitulate, and you get the rating.
GS: From speaking with other directors, I hear it’s not uncommon for them to say it’s the “tone” of a film without even singling out a scene.
JM: Yeah. With “Henry”, I was talking with a woman at the MPAA, and I didn’t know the process at that point, so I asked her what we could do to change the film. What could she tell me? She said, “There’s nothing you can do to change the rating on the film. We object to the overall moral tone.” Period. End of story. But to tell you the truth, at that point I was less worried about making money and more concerned about butchering my film. So we never cut it then, and never have. The funny thing about that is when the DVD came out, it was billed as the director’s cut. Technically that’s true, but the film was never cut so it wasn’t any different than earlier versions to the best of my knowledge.
GS: You had previously mentioned to me that at one point in time (redacted) Tom Towles (redacted). Can you talk about that?
JM: Tommy’s my dear friend. He’s gone, so I’ll say anything good about him you want, but I won’t go there. His memory is important to me.
GS: I respect that. A while back, you explained to me that the “Wild Things” Kevin Bacon nudity came at the insistence of the editor. Can you talk about that on the record?
JM: Sure. Everybody’s cool with that, so I’ll give you the whole story. That scene was shot in about eight takes. In seven takes, Matt Dillon throws the towel and Kevin Bacon catches it in time. That was the original intent. But in one take, the throw was late or something and when Kevin went to make the catch, he was “revealed”. We all laughed, but never expected it to be used.
Then you have my long-time editor, Elena Maganini, who put together the first rough cut. She had included the take where Kevin is revealed. We stopped it and turned to her and said, “Come on, Elena, you know we can’t use that.” Elena is one of the coolest people on earth and has a great sense of humor, but when she digs in her heels you have to listen because she’s not a frivolous person. She says to us, “You guys, look at this movie. There are naked women here, naked women there. Everywhere you look. This is just one shot. The girls can have fun, too, and I’m fighting for this shot.” We laughed. Our long-time producer Steve Jones called up Kevin, and the first thing Kevin said was, “How do I look?” We told him he looked fine. So he just said, “I don’t care. Go ahead and use it.” It remained it. Kevin was pretty calm about the whole thing, and everyone was happy. Maybe the MPAA wasn’t so happy, but they gave us an R, so I guess they let it go.
(Editor: In April 2013, Bacon spoke publicly about the scene. He said, “I honestly really didn’t think about it. I said, ‘If that’s the shot, that’s the shot that works, it’s OK.’ I just didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal. It wasn’t until we got to the press junket for the film that every single question, every single person asked me about it. By the way, when got to the European press, nobody asked me about it. I was a producer on the film, and in my contract, as an actor, I had a no-frontal-nudity clause. So, in theory, I could’ve sued myself.”)
GS: Before we go, we have to plug an upcoming project of yours: “Chicago Hack”.
JM: Oh, it’s a project with a friend of mine, Dmitry Samarov. He spent many years driving a cab in Chicago and wrote a book about it called “Hack” that you can find on Amazon from University of Chicago Press. All sorts of great stuff happened to him, and every morning at dawn he’d make ink and brush sketches of what happened and write a paragraph about it. I knew Dmitry before the book came out, liked his work and own some of it. He lived the anonymous life of a taxi driver meeting stranger after stranger, but there’s also a lively art scene in Chicago and Dmitry’s a well-known player. So he has one foot in the cab world, one foot in the art world. I thought that makes for a great story and we put together nine episodes of a show… but like everyone else, now we need the money.
Speaking of the future, I’ve also been working on a film with Bill Murray for the last eight years. Usually scripts get sent to actors, but this is one he actually found and he liked and he called me. He had the script passed to him by actress Linda Cardellini , and he wanted me to direct with him producing and starring. I read it and liked it very much. It’s by a guy named Jim Scrofani (phonetic, my apologies). We’ve been working, working, working for eight years… trying to make this film.
GS: With Bill Murray attached, someone has to pick it up.
JM: Well, we’re working on it. (laughs)
GS: Good luck and thank you for your time.
JM You’re welcome.