Interview: Kevin VanHenteryck

On October 9, 2010 the star of all three Basket Case movies, Kevin VanHenteryck, appeared at the Music Box Theater in Chicago where he signed autographs, took pictures and did a very lively Q&A with the audience. In the following transcript, he will talk about how he got the role, what it’s like working with a puppet, and the infamous nude scene.

Transcribed by Gavin Schmitt.

Music Box: Tell us how you got into this film.

Kevin VanHenteryck: Ilze Balodis, the social worker with the glasses. I was studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and she was the registrar there. She said, “I know this guy making movies. You should meet him.” And I said, “Okay.” I went and I did three walk-ins for a previous and unreleased film called “Slash of the Knife”. He liked the way I worked because I was an acting student, and I was on his case about using more acting students. If you use people with experience, you get better results than if you use your friends. So about six or eight months later he calls me up and he says, “I got this idea.”

MB: What was your reaction to the idea?

KV: Oh, I thought it was great. And I said yeah, it was too good to pass up.

MB: Tell us about the production: working with a prop, carrying the basket, all the location shooting.

KV: We shot that film ultra, ultra low-budget. We had no money. We filmed over more than a year’s time. The interior of the hotel was shot in someone’s loft. Frank would say “we need a toilet”, so we would pile into Andrew’s van and drive around Lower Manhattan to find a toilet or a door or whatever we needed. We would do scenes, then run out of money. We’d take a rough cut, show it to potential investors, get a little more money and make a few more scenes. We did that for about fourteen months.

MB: How did the film blossom into such a big thing?

KV: I have no idea about that. I do recall we had a debut, and we had an after-party at a Burger King or a McDonalds. Everyone has always been really enthusiastic about it, and then Joe Bob Briggs came out early on and was a real early champion of our film.

MB: How long did the film run as a midnight show?

KV: I want to say thirteen months. We had the second-longest run. The first longest was “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. I actually went to see it once incognito and there were people lined up around the block wearing doctor’s garb, covered in blood and carrying baskets.

MB: How did it do outside of New York?

KV: I’ve talked to people all over the world who are fans of this. I’ve been talking to a young lady from Manchester, England. There’s a fan base in Australia.

MB: The film got a new life on video. Is this what fueled the sequel?

KV: That’s really a Frank question. They were on his case for a long time to do a sequel. They came up with all kinds of ideas, like there being a fourth doctor or a third twin. Dumb stuff. Finally they wore him down and he came up with an idea they thought would work. The way Frank described the sequel to me initially was it was a take on Tod Browning’s “Freaks”. And I thought that kind of film with Frank’s vision and twisted sense of humor would make a good film. That’s the concept I was sold on. When they sent that idea to the money people, they said no way and cried “freaks’ rights” on us. So we backed off from that a little bit…

MB: What about the name Belial?

KV: Frank has always said it was an Elizabethan term for the devil and that’s where he came up with it. The legendary Frank Henenlotter!

MB: How were you able to react to things that weren’t real?

KV: Well, I did study acting. That helped. It’s called suspension of disbelief. You have to really believe what you’re doing. For example, when I had to carry the basket around, I put weights in the basket so it had weight. Or when I dump the basket out, I had to react because I’m dumping someone out. You just try to make it as real as possible.

MB: How many kissing takes did you do? And did you have a body double?

KV: Funny you should ask. Terri Susan Smith and I got along really well. Those were the most pleasant scenes to film. As far as the scene of me running through the streets sans clothing, that wasn’t even in the original script. About halfway through the shoot, Frank comes to me and says, “I have an idea.” And as usual, he was right. Of course, it was February, so you know… that was shot in Tribeca, before Tribeca became what it is now. So there’s not much of a population anyways. We set up a heated car at one side and a heated car at the other and just went for it.

MB: Your hair is amazing! Was that the way you were wearing it normally?

KV: Well, that’s what my hair looked like when we started. If you watch carefully, the hair fluctuates quite a bit. We tried to keep it as close as possible.

MB: What about your cameo in Brain Damage?

KV: There’s a funny story about that. Frank had intended both casts to cross over because we were shooting back to back. But there was a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) ruling that once you start an actor they have to be paid continuously until you do the wrap. So, cost-wise, that would have kept them on too long.

MB: How many different versions of the puppet did you have?

KV: There were at least two: the stuffed Belial and the mechanical Belial. The mechanical one had movable and lightable eyes. And a bladder for breathing. Then there was the simple rubber one. Frank still has one of them, but it’s not in very good shape. It’s a prized relic.

MB: What is it like working with Frank and will there ever be a remake or a sequel?

KV: Frank’s an amazing guy. He’s a human dictionary on the genre. He can tell you the most obscure details on films. So there was always interesting conversation, and he had a certain vision that we were just in awe of. But that’s the director’s job. The director has to know the whole thing, inside and out, before you start. As far as a sequel, I’d love to do a fourth. Anyone out there have two million dollars? I’ve heard that Rainn Wilson wants to do a remake of it. There’s talk of an action figure next year…

MB: Can you tell us about any problems?

KV: Well, when we did the scene with Belial and Terry, that caused a big stir from the crew. If I remember right, the sound guys were disturbed by that. And it’s always a problem getting a large group of people’s schedules together at the same time.

MB: What are you doing now?

KV: I’m a stone carver. Check out my website and see some of my work there. That’s really been my focus since even before the first film, but when I got the script it was way too good to pass up. I have a studio in the mountains west of Woodstock and I do stone carving as much as possible.

MB: Have you done a Belial sculpture?

KV: I did. But I did it a little bit differently. This (points to his t-shirt) is one of my favorite representations of Belial. Frank drew this.

MB: What about the stop-motion animation?

KV: The story I heard from Frank, so this is second-hand now, is that they started out wanting to do it all fussy and careful. And it’s real time consuming and meticulous. What he says is that after a while he would get so bored that he would just go up there and kick it.

MB: What was your favorite part of making the film?

KV: Probably watching Frank work. As an actor, I love to act. But watching someone who has the whole thing in his mind pull it off at that budget level… under $50,000 at 16mm.

MB: Did you have any trouble shooting in Times Square by 42nd Street?

KV: Oh yeah. The old Times Square was gritty. We were threatened by one of those guys in the storefront. They didn’t want any cameras and they thought we were CNN or ABC or whatever. But Frank would tell them it was a student film and he pulled it off. The Statue of Liberty was another case of guerrilla film-making, because we couldn’t get a permit. The defining factor was if you have a tripod, so we had to do it handheld. We did it once, and what we filmed was what you see.

MB: Which film did you enjoy the most?

KV: The first is still my favorite. The second two are different, with their budgets being just under a million apiece. It’s a different way to work. They’re fun in different ways, but we were like a family during the first one.

MB: Will you work with Frank again?

KV: That’s a Frank question. I’d love to work with Frank again. Keep your fingers crossed.

MB: Was the film ever screened at Times Square?

KV: I don’t know about the first one, but the second one had a theatrical release and was shown in Times Square around 23rd Street…

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