At a time when remakes – like them or not – are status quo for the movie industry, few films achieve a level of being anywhere near as good as their originals. This is especially true for the horror genre. After so many still-births and disappointments (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left, to name but a few), fans have longed for someone to take a beloved film from the past and improve it, updating it to fit a more modern sensibility. Many have tried… most fail.
Enter director Steven R. Monroe and his re-imagining of the exploitation classic I Spit On Your Grave (review here) (Blu-ray/DVD review here). Long whispered about by fans as a cornerstone of late ’70s grindhouse fare, I Spit On Your Grave is admittedly a tough row to hoe. The film tells the story of a woman living alone in a remote mountain home who is attacked and brutally raped by a group of locals. While the rape itself is tough to watch, it is the second half that sealed the film’s reputation. Audiences were horrified as the heroine begins to exact a much-deserved revenge. Roger Ebert went as far as to call it “the worst film ever made”, and it went on to be banned in several countries.
In the remake Monroe has crafted a brutal film which measures up to the original in every way. However, during the revenge portion of the film in the last reel, he manages to amp up what was presented in the original and effectively clothes-lines the audience. The level of depravity – admittedly deserved – directed toward the rapist is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Dread Central talked with Steven R. Monroe about his formative years, his career, I Spit On Your Grave, and what the future holds.
Dread Central: Where did you grow up, and what were you like as a kid?
Steven R. Monroe: I was born in New York. We lived there until I was about six years old, and we had a really brief stint in Australia and then landed in Los Angeles in 1972. My father was a cameraman and my mother was a theater director and producer. She was a NYU Theater grad, assisted for Haig Manoogian who was Scorsese’s mentor. We landed here luckily because the film business was starting to fade a little bit in New York. I, pretty much from the age of about six, started making my own Super 8 millimeter movies and just being obsessed with films. I’ve been on film sets since Day 1 basically. They were my real home. All the way through high school, starting at about twelve years old, every summer, I would spend working in the Camera Department on the sets with my Dad loading film.
DC: Given that your family was so involved in the industry, was it a foregone conclusion that you would be involved as well, or did they try to talk you out of it?
SRM: They really didn’t do either. They were the kind of parents who said, “You can do whatever you want… just don’t be a Republican.” [laughs] They supported everything I did, even in my teen years through my early twenties. I mean, I played the drums and was in bands, and even though that was never a plan to do that as a career, they never once said, “Don’t do this as a career.” They let me kind of find my own path, but it was always leaning toward film. When I graduated high school, my Dad said to me, “You can take what you know now and you can go to film school or you can start working freelance on the set.” And I said, “I’m goin’ for the set, man.” [laughs]
DC: The food’s better.
SRM: [laughs] It was inevitable, but it was a hundred percent all within my passion and my choice.
DC: So, stepping off notes for a minute… You mentioned being a drummer. Who are some of your favorite drummers?
SRM: [sighs] Ah, man… It’s tricky. I gotta say Neil Peart. [laughs] I gotta say that. He’s one of those guys people love him and hate him. Surprisingly, a big influence for me were two guys in Pop Rock bands: Alan Gratzer from REO Speedwagon and Steve Smith from Journey.
DC: Smith’s a monster.
SRM: Nigel Olsson, Elton John’s drummer was as well. So, I had a long stint as a heavy metalhead, but I always kind of liked the more broad musicians, you know what I mean?
DC: You can only play those doubles for so long…
SRM: One of the reasons I got kicked out of my band was because I went back to single bass. That wasn’t allowed in a heavy metal band. [laughs]
DC: “Nico McBrain wouldn’t do that!” [laughs]
SRM: Nico… and Clive Burr who I absolutely loved… they were both single bass guys and they pulled it off, man.
DC: [laughs] This is SO not what we should be talking about, but… [laughs] Guys like Dennis Chambers from John Scofield’s band played a single bass and were able to make it sound like a double bass.
SRM: Yeah… yeah!
DC: But back on point… [laughs] What about filmmakers? Growing up, who were the guys that you just idolized?
SRM: William Friedkin… Coppola… Scorsese… George Roy Hill… Those were kind of the main guys. Friedkin had a really big influence on me, but the one that was really everything to me was Kubrick. I started getting really disappointed a little tiny bit – and I wasn’t sure why at the time – with THE SHINING. Then, FULL METAL JACKET started going downhill for me. The first half of the film was great. [laughs] With EYES WIDE SHUT, I went into a deep depression and I think most of that was… I wouldn’t have gotten that depressed if he hadn’t passed away. But for that to be his final film, it made me really sad. For me, PATHS OF GLORY, CLOCKWORK ORANGE and, believe it or not, BARRY LYNDON…
DC: You know what? I love Barry Lyndon.
SRM: I love BARRY LYNDON, man. [laughs]
DC: I’m not a huge Kubrick fan, but Barry Lyndon gets me every time.
SRM: It wasn’t received properly. I think people had it in for it immediately because Ryan O’Neal was a huge star at the time, but I actually think it was the best performance Ryan O’Neal ever delivered.
DC: It’s kind of like Ridley Scott’s The Duellists if you want to go back that far. You mention that film and no one’s ever seen it. Stepping back for a second to the Super 8 days… Did you, like a lot of people growing up at that time, make the transfer to VHS?
SRM: No, this was way before that. I was shooting Super 8. It was even right on the cusp of when you still had to record the sound separately. Then, I’d cut it myself in my bedroom with glue and scissors. The first one I made was in seventh grade, and it was my sequel to MARATHON MAN. [laughs]
DC: [laughs] There you go… lookit you!
SRM: It was a blast, man.
DC: So, I was reading through your bio and I got the impression that you felt it was really important to learn the ins-and-outs of the camera.
SRM: Yeah, well, the ins-and-outs of everything. But, for me, being in the Camera Department was the spot where I personally felt was the best place for someone who wanted to become a well-rounded director technically to be. I mean, you’re learning the camera, you’re learning lighting, you’re learning lenses, you’re the closest person to the actors – physically, not emotionally – but… The Focus Puller beside the Director are the only people on the set who get to look the actors in the eye because they’re pulling focus. [laughs] You’re right there. The Camera Operators and the Focus Pullers hear all the intimate conversations between the actors and the director. They’re right there. It’s pretty standard in this business to hear, “He’s an actor’s director” or “He’s a script director” or “He’s just a visual director.” That doesn’t really work for me. I think everybody needs to have all of it, especially in this day and age when everybody’s making so much money. [laughs]
DC: I’ve heard some filmmakers on this subject say, “Well, that’s what I hire a DP for.”
SRM: Ummmm… uhhh… What do I say to that? I say, “Tell that to Ridley Scott. Tell it to Stanley Kubrick. Tell it to William Friedkin.” All those guys. There are different types of filmmakers. To me, the Director of Photography is your collaborator. If you’re walking on the set and going, “Set up a really nice shot for me,” you’re not directing.
DC: Not to single anyone out, but… Kevin Smith. He just did a Q&A thing which was released on DVD called Too Fat for Forty. He was talking about a conversation he was having with Bruce Willis in which Bruce asked him which lens he was going to use for a particular shot. He responded with something like, “I don’t know. A long one.” He went on to basically say that he tells his DP what he wants and he makes it happen.
SRM: I’ve always respected Kevin Smith, but has he ever done a good looking movie? [laughs]
DC: I hear Red State looks good. I’ve heard mixed reviews on the film.
SRM: Yeah, I’ve heard REALLY mixed reviews on it. I’ve heard both. But, for me, it’s more of a personal thing. I need to be in full control of how the film looks. I mean, people never just finish the film and then don’t go into the edit room, and yet, there are people who say, “Let the DP do their job.” It doesn’t make sense to me. Or people don’t say, “Your composer will turn in his score when he’s done.” [laughs] Look, I’ve been very lucky throughout the years. I’ve worked with a lot of the same people over and over again, but you either get DPs who can work the way I do or you have people who can’t deal with it and I say to them, “Why don’t you try directing then.” [laughs]
DC: You did a lot of television as well.
SRM: When I was in the Camera Department I did a ton of television. As a director, I’ve done I think six television movies. It was really important to me to have both in my career and have different genres as well. I grew up watching the guys that weren’t labeled. So, it was important for me. I don’t want my manager to ever have to call me and say, “You can’t have that job because you’re ‘the horror guy.’” [laughs]
DC: Well, you know I was just talking about this with someone and Takashi Miike’s name was brought up. The guy can do anything. The jury’s out as to whether he does it all well, but… he’s able to at least make a film in just about every genre. Having that kind of versatility in your bag can only be a good thing.
SRM: The jury’s out also on Robert Rodriguez. It’s the same kind of thing. I can’t read a script when someone’s asking me to do a film without seeing how it’s going to play out visually. It’s just the way my brain works as a filmmaker.
DC: Do you think working in television is a good teaching environment? I mean, obviously it teaches you to work fast.
SRM: You work fast, but I gotta tell ya… I’ve never had the luxury of a big budget, so I’ve had to work just as fast on feature films as I have on television. And television series, when I was in the Camera Department, you work fast, but you don’t work nearly as fast as you do on a low budget film. My best friend does all episodic television, and I was on the set visiting him once and he goes, “Oh, I’ve got a big day today. I have to do four and a half pages”, and I was like, “Wow, that’s like half usually of what I have on the call sheet.” Also on television you’ve got a working machine and plenty of staff and crew because that machine’s always going forward. Whereas each time you start up a movie, you’re starting completely new every time. I think that just being on any set is training ground. You’ve just got to understand and know the ins-and-outs and the dos-and-don’ts of television, television movies vs. television series or feature films vs. television movies. There’s dos-and-don’ts on all of them.
I just got into a debate with a series director who was complaining about how one of the actors didn’t want to do what he wanted him to do. This is like eight seasons into a show, and I said, “You don’t tell the actors what their characters are thinking when they’re eight seasons in.” They do what their characters have done for eight seasons, and if you’re telling them to do something that doesn’t fit the character they’ve done for two hundred episodes… maybe you need to go make movies if you want to have that kind of establishment of characters and beats.
DC: How do you feel about the move to the digital medium, like with the RED?
SRM: It’s funny… Most people, producers that I’ve met with, not so much now, but four or five years ago, would always be really hesitant to say, “How do you feel about shooting HD on this?” because technically you could call me “old school” where film is sacred. For me, I completely welcome all the formats. The only time I have issue with it is when people say, “We’re trying to save money, so shoot this, but make it look like this.” I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was shot on the RED camera, and I absolutely loved it. I did a drama with a regular camera because I wanted to incorporate a docu-drama look to it. I think these are all great tools to give different types of looks to films. As long as it fits, I absolutely love it. I actually talked a producer out of film recently. [laughs] I think it’s great.
DC: I interviewed the Strause brothers recently for Skyline, and they said they shot everything on the RED using wireless. They were talking about them being in one car while filming in another car and both of them were driving down a crowded freeway at 70 miles per hour…
SRM: …which is awesome.
DC: Yeah, it is. But their argument in favor of the RED is pretty compelling. While people may have taken issue with the film’s storyline, it sure does look good. I also hear about nose assemblies that can duplicate the look of film on digital, so… as time goes on, maybe the line between the two will get more and more indistinct.
SRM: There are a lot of pluses to digital. I mean, I’ve lost scenes, I’ve lost actors waiting for a film crew that’s not necessarily as fast as others at reloading the camera. There are pluses and minuses to everything, but there’s still nothing like shooting a widescreen film. [laughs] If you can get a producer to let you shoot widescreen. That’s the hardest thing, man. Unless you’re definitely making a studio film that’s going to theaters and working with a producer who likes widescreen, it’s a complete wrestling match all the time to get people to do it.
DC: So, how do you go about picking projects?
SRM: You know… [sighs] This is funny because you’re touching on something that’s been quite a big issue since I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE came out. There are directors that have really kind of been lucky and spent their careers just picking the right project. I’ve always been “a working director” and I need to work. I’m not saying that I grab at everything that comes along, but I’ve never been in a situation where I get to say, “I’m just going to sit here and wait for PULP FICTION to hit my desk.” So, that’s another reason why I’ve always wanted television incorporated into my career because you’re more of a hired gun in television. I’ve been able to go and do television movies when I’ve needed to work and provide for my family [laughs] and pay my bills. So, you take those and yeah, I’ve passed on some, but I’ve taken some that I said, “This really looks like fun and I think I can really do something fun with it.” A lot of times, you get the crap beaten out of you for it on the web [laughs] by certain people who don’t really understand the process and expect certain things. I mean, if you scroll through the reviews of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, I would say ninety percent of people that have had a negative review of it have started by poking fun at me and listing the television movies that I’ve done as my accomplishments which, if you’re doing a review of a feature film, why not list other feature films that the person’s done instead of TV movies that don’t have anything to do with feature films? Do you know what I mean? What I try and really look for? Yes, some things have come across my desk that I’ve said, “No, I can’t do this,” but I always look for something that I really feel like I can do something with. A few quite brilliant things have come across my desk and I keep my fingers crossed that they will get made. [chuckles]
DC: One small thing… I think that’s what the Internet does.. It shits all over creative people’s work. There are people out there who think their sole job is to spew bile.
SRM: Well, you know the keyboard and the Internet have become a very dangerous thing for journalists. What I’m saying is… there’s a confusion as to who is a real journalist and who isn’t now. I think even Hollywood now has gotten confused because there’s so much out there. I actually had an interview about six months ago and one of the producers didn’t want to give me the job because of a web interview and it was written by someone who not only didn’t spell my name right, but literally was some dude blogging out of his basement [laughs] and didn’t know a thing about film. It’s actually started to get into the heart of Hollywood now because everything’s so quick now. “Look at this web page. Oops, I read something I didn’t like. It must be real.”
DC: And I deal with that all the time… I’ve been doing this since the early 1990s and I’m a little older than most of the people who do this. I often run into people in their early twenties who say, “I don’t watch black and white films” or have no idea who Jacques Tourneur is. Oooooo-k. [laughs]
SRM: There seems to be a confusion with a lot of these people about opinion and preaching. I think a lot of these people don’t realize that you’re technically supposed to be giving an opinion, but yet they’re sitting there saying, “I’m right and this filmmaker’s wrong” or something like that. It’s gotten pretty hostile and crazy. [laughs]
DC: Look at IMDB’s or Aint It Cool News’ forums. That can become such a dumping ground for hate.
SRM: But I think in the horror genre it’s spread quite a bit even to the more established places. I mean, Dread Central obviously is my favorite. I love everybody over there. I’m not going to name any names, but there’s a thing out right now on one of the biggest web sites where I’m just short of being accused of promoting pedophilia based on this person’s opinion of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. I don’t think that’s what you’re really supposed to be doing… [laughs]
DC: Not to mention that it’s such an invalid and hyperbolic argument.
SRM: It’s basically separating the men from the boys.
DC: And you know what… “Talk to me in five years and we’ll see if you’re still around.”
SRM: [laughs] That’s why I was very glad when Dread Central sent me the email and I said, “Oh, my god… there’s a real journalist going to interview me. It’ll be one of the first times since…” I’ve probably done two hundred interviews for I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and this is the reason my manager wanted me to do a more in-depth thing with somebody. Most of these interviews and reviews have just been complete shit and no one does any research and nobody checks their fact. I literally had to hire a publicist just to deal with the fact that my name gets spelled wrong about seventy percent of the time. That’s the simplest thing.
DC: You’ve done a fair amount of genre films. Where do you see the genre going, and what do you think it needs to be better than it is?
SRM: You know I think it needs – and right now I don’t see this happening – to get back a little bit into the indie world and out of the studios. And I think it needs for the smaller independent genre producers and distributors to quit the crap of “who’s selling this week” and “what’s selling this week.” Now the new thing is “make a genre film, but also make sure that you can get a TV sale on it.” You’re not making movies anymore, do you know what I mean? I literally just had a producer say to me, “I want to do a project with you, but I need something that I can sell overseas to my German buyers, that I can get a US theatrical deal on, and also sell to the Syfy channel.” I’m like, “I have no idea what to tell you then, dude.” [laughs]
DC: They all seem sort of mutually exclusive.
SRM: I understand… the economy is in the tank, so I understand that you’re going to try and make your money back, but by the time you do all that… Basically, when the studios do it, they piss off the fans because they go for the PG-13. When these guys do it, they piss off the fans because there’s all these elements that have to be answered to. But the fans are the ones who buy the DVDs and go to the theater. So, at some point, someone’s kind of got to get back to… Well, I always use the ’70s as an example of when all the best films were made, and I think that’s when a lot of the best genre films were made, too.
DC: Well, I think it’s also a case that the moviegoing experience has become polluted because you’re going there and paying admittedly high prices and the other people who go are rude and boorish. We went to see something recently, and the person sitting next to us was continually texting the whole time. I said to my wife, “I’m going to shove that thing down this guy’s throat in a minute.” [laughs]
SRM: It’s either that or some moron’s literally chewing popcorn so loud in your ear. The only time now, in the past five years that I go to the theater… I only go to The Arclight Cinema in the middle of the week and that’s it.
DC: I think that what’s happening – and the reason revenues are down at theaters – is that “older people” (I’ll say anyone over the age of, say, 30) think, “Wow, that was such an unpleasant experience, but if I just bankroll all that money I’m paying out on the moviegoing experience, I can just buy and install a complete theater system in my house and avoid all of this.”
SRM: I know! I have friends that have done that and you can sit at home and have dinner and drink wine while you’re watching the movie.
DC: And pause it to go take a leak or whatever. The thing is when they do exit polls on theatrical releases, they’re getting nothing but feedback from thirteen-year-old girls and the next thing you know…
SRM: You’ve got TWILIGHT. [laughs]
DC: [laughs] Right. You’ve got Twilight… or I Am Number Four or whatever.
SRM: Or ROOMMATE or any of those things. And then, when the real, darker, and more disturbing things get done, the critics are crapping on them because they’re not studio films and they don’t make it into wide release cinemas.
Monroe working a scene out with Jeff Branson (Daniel Franzese in the background)
DC: Well, for my money, everything of interest is coming out of either the independent world or from overseas and then they get remade in America and neutered.
SRM: Badly. I hear they’re remaking OLDBOY.
DC: [exasperated sigh] I had read that for a long time and then I read that it was not going to happen.
SRM: I hope not. There are a few “I hope nots” and another one of them is STRAW DOGS. [laughs]
DC: Oh, I know… Can you imagine?
SRM: Well, again – and I’ve been misquoted a couple of times on this – I finally took the stance that this is going to keep happening, so hopefully good filmmakers will become part of it and embrace the remakes. I’m a little nervous about STRAW DOGS though. [laughs]
DC: Anything where it is so ingrained in filmmaker’s DNA… I mean, it’s Peckinpah, jesus.
SRM: STRAW DOGS is in my Top Twenty of the Best Films Ever Made.
DC: Is it, really?
SRM: Oh, yeah… I mean, several Peckinpah films are. THE WILD BUNCH…
DC: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia…
SRM: … was awesome.
DC: In fact, I just added Ride the High Country to my Netflix queue.
SRM: Oh, it’s great! THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE was great, too. It’s very misunderstood. There is an amazing documentary on it and there’s this footage of Peckinpah, Jason Robards, and Warren Oates. The documentary guy who was shooting it was outside the bar they used to go to every night shooting through a window, watching them drink and play pool. The end of that segment was when they finished the movie – and you have to think about what year this was… I think it was ’72, maybe – Peckinpah’s bar tab was $75,000. So, let’s put that into perspective of today. It’s got to be like $300,000 or $400,000. [laughs]
DC: Those are heavy-hitters there. You better be wearing your big boy pants to drink with those guys.
SRM: Oh yeah… I got to drink with Oliver Reed once. I was in my twenties and I savored every minute of it. I’ve never seen drinking like that in my life.
DC: Those are days when you wake up and your liver hurts to the touch.
SRM: Yeah, but you know what? We’d stumble out of the bar at two or two-thirty, walk across the street to the hotel, and we’d have crew and cast leave at four-thirty in the morning. Here I was twenty-four years old and the other camera guys were late twenties or early thirties and we were barely making it into the van and Oliver Reed was running out, hugging everybody, and jumping into the van ready to go. [laughs] It was awesome.
DC: Some of the stuff you’ve done in the last few years has shown up on Syfy. Was working for them a good experience?
SRM: Yes and no. They were very tight budgets, very tight schedules, and their huge expectations are hard, but I like challenges. It kind of happened on accident though. I did one film that Syfy picked up as an original movie and they really liked it. Cinetel, who does a lot of Syfy stuff and also did I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, saw that and asked me to do one of them and then one turned into another and another and another. It’s a lot of fun because you’re dealing with stuff that is fun and exciting and intentionally doesn’t take itself too seriously, even though, unfortunately, people take them seriously and don’t get it, you know? [laughs] So, those are kind of the downfall of those.
The problem that happens is that you go in as a director and you’re hired to deliver a TV movie for the Syfy channel, but the people who made the film sent it to television on Syfy domestically and then sell it as a feature film overseas. So, when people rent the DVD, it’s not really presented as a Syfy channel movie, and that’s where I start to take heat for it. “Look at the crap this guy’s directed and now he’s doing I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.” Do you know what I mean? So, it’s been pluses and minuses because it is a lot of fun and it offers good challenges… I mean, you get to deal with CG and monsters. It’s like being a kid in a candy store if you’re a filmmaker – you’re playing around with blood and you’re playing around with creatures and all kinds of fun things. However, there is a backlash to it, but whatever. You’ve got to brush it off and keep going.
DC: I just read about a Syfy movie called Piranhaconda.
SRM: Yeah. [laughs] Luckily, I haven’t done any of those combo things [laughs]
DC: Someone needs to take Roger Corman aside and say, “Ok, I think you’re done now.”
SRM: Again, this is something I wish people would get a little better… Everyone gets so worked up, but why this is such a big thing now is because SHARKTOPUS was huge. It was huge! So, that’s huge and that’s why producers are going to make a bunch more because everybody loved that and watched it. I love genre fans because I get the passion, but a lot of times they’re their own worst enemy.
DC: Well, I think people forget that sometimes you have to sacrifice a little revenue for quality. I mean, when genre films are good… they’re really good. But the genre often draws people who are either not talented enough to pull it off or they go after a quick payday.
SRM: Look, make no mistake… When I go and do television movies, I am not getting rich on those. [laughs]
DC: I’m curious, which of your films are you most proud of?
SRM: There are three of them. There’s HOUSE OF 9, which is a feature film that I did which has a little bit of an interesting back story to it. We did it in 2004. We were shooting at the same time as the original SAW was. When we finished shooting, the producers had a little bit of financial problems during post-production, so ours didn’t get released for about a year and a half. In that time SAW got released and the producers saw all the money that SAW made and decided to market HOUSE OF 9 as a SAW… which it wasn’t. It was not a horror film. It was not a torture/gore fest. It was a psychological thriller. So horror fans went berserk slamming it saying, “This is the most boring piece of crap I’ve ever seen in my life. People sit around and just talk.” [laughs] But, it’s had a very long life. If you look on IMDB, it’s still up there. It has as many hits as studio films has. I’m proud of it because I like the way it turned out. I have a handful of issues with it that I’ve never been able to get over because that’s just kind of the way I work. You’ll never hear me say, “I love that film. It’s perfect.” [laughs] There’s that one that I’m happy with… I am proud of a lot of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and I’m proud of a little tiny, tiny little drama that I did called COMPLACENT. It’s on Netflix now.
DC: That’s a straight-up drama, right?
SRM: It’s a straight-up drama. It’s a little bit of a dark comedy, also. It’s just kind of a satirical dramatic look at horrible white suburban married couples and how they treat each other. [laughs] Just how Americans like that live in a little bubble in their own world.
DC: Let’s talk I Spit On Your Grave for a little bit. What drew you to the film? Were you a fan of the original movie?
SRM: I wouldn’t say that I was a fan, but it was one of those films – I saw it in 1980 – and it just kind of stayed with me for days and days. It was always one of those films that I would go back and say, “That film had a really disturbing effect on me.” I always have a lot of respect for filmmakers (no matter when it was) that go out and… That was at a time when you’d go raise some money and make a film as a filmmaker. You didn’t have ten producers looking over your shoulder saying, “You can do this. You can’t do that shot. You can’t let the actor act like this.” Meir Zarchi made a film that was very important to him and close to him and didn’t really care what anybody was going to say about it and I have a lot of respect for that. [laughs]
So, when I heard they were remaking it, I kind of stumbled on it. I was doing a television movie for Cinetel, and Neil Elman, one of the producers, has the Millennium Edition of the DVD sitting on his desk, and I said, “What the hell is this doing here?” I knew everyone there and none of them was watching it. [laughs] I asked to direct it and kind of lobbied for it for about a year while they were getting the first draft of the script together. They gave me the job, and it was a combination of a couple of things that interested me: The films of the ’70s were iconic to me and I liked the idea of remaking something from that time. I’m very attracted to dark and disturbing themes because to me that’s dramatic content and I am really, really attracted to dramatic content. Honestly, there was also a fear that this was going to be a low budget, small remake; and I wanted to get my hands on it so hopefully it could get done properly or at least get done well because I think there are a lot of people out there who don’t really care so much about how something comes out. They’re more concerned with doing what they want to do with it.
DC: Given the film’s subject matter, did you feel the need to tread lightly?
SRM: No. It was the exact opposite. When I met with Lisa Hansen and Paul Hertzberg telling them what I would do with it, I said to them, “I’m hoping you guys aren’t planning on backing off on anything because that’s not what I would want to do with it.” And they said, “No… no. We want to stay very true to it, and as a matter of fact, we want to amp up all the revenge scenes.” Their perspective at Anchor Bay was that the new horror fans that will come out to see this would be expecting it.
DC: Having heard of the film’s reputation and the buzz surrounding it.
SRM: Yeah, yeah… And also just, in this day and age, what people are more used to now and let’s face it… The original wasn’t really a horror film. It got embraced by the horror audiences when it got banned and came out on VHS. The revenge sequences in that movie – except for the great bathtub scene with Johnny – were really quick. They started and were over with really quick. They wanted to make a lot more out of it, and I said, “I don’t want to back off on anything in it.” So, that was kind of my mentality and they went with it even with me saying, “The way I want to shoot it is going to make it even more raw and more disturbing. We’re not going to have flowing steadicam shots and dolly shots [laughs] and things like that. And it’s not going to be shot like the original.” Meir liked to put the camera back and make things very theatrical and let it see everything almost like it were playing out on a theater stage. I felt like the camera had to be a character and be in there and be experiencing what she’s experiencing.
DC: The revenge stuff in your film is so satisfying. [laughs] Such a great job. [laughs]
SRM: I’ve tried to explain this and it’s been misunderstood a couple of time and some other people have completely gotten it, but the second half of the film – the revenge stuff – is almost a little bit of a fantasyland. You have to embrace that to not misunderstand it. It’s almost in the head of anyone who has had someone close to them – anyone’s mother or daughter or wife or sister – have something like this happen to… or the person it’s happened to. Everyone’s gone to this place in their head. “What would I do to these people?” I don’t care who the person is. I don’t care if you’re religious. [laughs] You’ve gone there. You’ve thought these things, and whether you’ve acted on them or not is a completely different ballgame.
DC: Tell me about your cast.
SRM: I got really lucky. It was the first time in my career that I actually got each person that I wanted in the film. Right off the bat, at my first meeting, I said, “We can’t put ‘a name’ in this movie. We can’t have a female celebrity play this lead.” There was talk about it on and off initially and luckily it went the other way. I said, “We really need to do open casting and find someone without a name.” Sarah Butler was actually the second or third initial cold audition tape that I saw, and within seconds of her audition I knew she was the one, and I just had to go and convince the producers and distributors that she was right for it. The guys… it was the same thing. Jeff Branson, I think, the second take of his audition I knew he was Johnny. Chad Lindberg just completely knocked Matthew out of the park. He couldn’t have done more exactly how I saw Matthew in my head, you know? We used to say he was a combination of a twelve-year-old boy and Billy Bibbitt [from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST]. It was that kind of combo. Daniel Franzese and Rodney Eastman… Rodney actually came in last. That was the only role we were having a problem casting. He shared a manager with someone we’d already cast and they said, “Why don’t you look at his demo reel?” I looked at it and I said, “Oh, yeah… I know who he is. He’s perfect for it.” And that was pretty much everybody. Andrew Howard… Lisa Hansen is friends with him and when we were having trouble casting Andy, she said, “Look, my friend Andrew… I could get him to do this. Look at him for Andy.” I watched a film he had done, and within twenty minutes I sent Lisa an email and I said, “I see him as Sheriff Storch not Andy.” It took Lisa about two weeks and she suddenly said, “Yeah, you’re right. He’d be perfect.”
DC: He’s great in the film.
SRM: Yeah, he’s amazing.
DC: What’s so great about his portrayal is that you see the family man and then you also see the brutality of what they do to her.
SRM: You see the life that he is an actor in, so to speak, and you also see what’s really deep down inside of him and you can watch the conflict sometimes. I told all of the guys… I said, “Yeah, you’re the bad guys, but I don’t want bad guys.” And this is something that I knew was going to be very polarized. I think people either get it or they don’t. People either go, “Those guys were all terrible. They’re bad actors. I hate them” or they’ll say, “You know what? They were really good. They were believable.” There was all this controversy all over the web with people going, “I don’t understand. Are you supposed to feel sorry for these guys?” I’ve answered it many times and I’ve said, “If you feel sorry for them, you feel sorry for them.” I said to all of the actors, “I want at least one beat from every one of you guys that makes people go, “I don’t know how to feel about this. There’s a human being in there. People aren’t born this way. They’re taught hate. They’re taught anger. They’re taught violence. So, you guys were all somebody else once when you were young. You all had parents who probably fucked you up.” [laughs] I really wanted that. I wanted that question there. Everyone wants a black or white answer morally… and there isn’t one in a film like this. I keep having to say this over and over again, “I don’t want to make films that people walk out being told how they’re supposed to feel.” I have no interest whatsoever in doing that.
DC: There’s never any twisting of the moustache in real life.
SRM: “Moustache curling” was the term I always used. [laughs]
DC: There’s always that part of someone that makes them human because no one is “evil.” And even with these guys, they may be hicks and they may be sort of ignorant, but…
SRM: It’s the life they grew up in. I tried to show that and, again and again, it’s really polarizing. It’s funny… You get one chunk of critics/reviewers saying, “Oh, he spent too much time on these guys. I don’t care about these guys” and you get other people going, “I want more back story on these guys!” You’ve got to find that fence to walk on. You’re remaking a movie so you’re following a blueprint, so there’s only so much you can do. I really honestly tried to and felt that you got their atmosphere. You didn’t have to have a scene where Johnny’s father goes up to his trailer and beats him up or anything. Do you know what I mean? You didn’t need that. You got it. You can see who these guys are and, if you have any intelligence, you know how people become hateful and violent.
DC: The film is available on DVD and Blu Ray from Anchor Bay. So, what is going on for you next? I read something about a film called Jabberwocky.
SRM: That’s done. That’s shot and done. We’re just finishing post production, and that’s a Syfy original movie.
DC: Is there anything you’re sort of eyeballing?
SRM: You know, I’m eyeballing a bunch of things. I just had one project that I was very excited about die because the Governor of Michigan pulled the plug on the tax incentives [laughs] which was a comedy. Everyone keeps telling me I can’t do comedy because that’s Hollywood. I was excited about it, but it obviously has funding problems now. I’ve got a couple of things that I’ve been offered, but they’re not done deals yet so unfortunately I can’t really talk about them. I’m being very careful about what my next feature film is. Again, that’s another reason why trying to keep a television career is important, too. You can stay working and keep yourself sane by also working in television, but being careful about what feature films you do. So, I’m kind of looking for that right thing and hoping a couple of these right things that are out there [laughs] come through.
Our thanks to Steven for taking so much time to speak with us. For more visit the official I Spit on Your Grave website.
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