Steven R. Monroe Talks the Aftermath of I Spit on Your Grave and More!
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.