William Lustig is an American filmmaker, director, and producer. He is perhaps best known as the director of the New York exploitation slasher classic, Maniac, starring Joe Spinelli with effects by Tom Savini.
Maniac was Bill’s first feature and the story behind its production is full of timeless lessons in independent horror filmmaking (there’s a particularly insightful story about the strategy behind how he premiered Maniac at the Cannes Film Festival). Last year, Maniac received a stunning 4K Blu-ray remastering from Bill’s company, Blue Underground (Maniac, along with Blue Underground’s remastering of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, are absolute must-haves).
Here’s a fun fact: Bill is the nephew of Jake LaMotta, the boxer played by Robert Deniro in Raging Bull. Also, Bill was originally supposed to direct True Romance, as he was Quentin Tarantino’s first choice as a director, Bill even wrote the ending. Another fun fact is that before horror, he started his career in hardcore pornography, and was heavily immersed in the overall grindhouse culture of New York City’s famous 42nd Street. Bill is a titan in the exploitation genre and is full of very practical and timeless wisdom for aspiring and established horror filmmakers alike. He was extremely generous with his insight during this interview.
Now, let’s kick things off with three key lessons learned from Bill Lustig:
- Get the train moving– When pitching a movie, it’s critical to remember that there are thousands of other people with scripts and ideas, just as good as (if not better than) yours. What separates those who get funding from those who don’t is momentum and tangibility. If all you have is a script or an idea for a movie, in the eyes of investors you might as well have nothing. For producers to be interested, they need to know you are capable of bringing this vision to life and seeing it through to completion, which is why they look for signs that the project is moving forward.
- The metaphor of getting the train out of the station is a good one. To wait for producers to jump on board before you go into production is a fool’s errand as the sheer act of going into production can get producers interested because it indicates that you’re a worthwhile investment and can make things happen. Movement is critical in this regard, and frequently, directors will pitch producers who say no at first, but jump on board when the movie is further in development. So the other part of that lesson is that no might not always mean no. It could mean, not now.
- Never underestimate the power of showmanship. When Bill was screening Maniac at the Cannes Film Festival, one of his reps insisted that it be shown at the smallest theatre available. This seems entirely counter-intuitive, BUT, the purpose of the small screen was to ensure that the movie would sell out and there would be lines around the block, creating a visual spectacle and demand for the movie. This gets attention at a film auction circus like the Cannes Film Festival, where it’s imperative that you make some sort of splash to be noticed.
- Furthermore, Bill gave most of the tickets away to local high school and college kids to boost the youthful energy of the audience. Their lively reactions made the producers and investors in the theatre way more interested in acquiring the film. These are all brilliant strategies and underscore the importance of the atmosphere that you must create around your film when selling it. What it teaches is that directing doesn’t stop when the movie is wrapped – you have to be a director on and off set and constantly create a spectacle. As a result, Bill and his team walked out with a major acquisition deal for Maniac, which set him up for a successful career in filmmaking.
- (Never) Give up. I have to battle with a piece of advice Bill gave that I don’t agree with, and that is that if you’re not making movies by age 30, you should give up. Let’s examine some case studies:
- Wes Craven was 34 when he made Last House on the Left
- Ridley Scott was 40 when he made his first major film, The Duelists, and then went on to direct Alien
- Mick Garris was 33 when he first began screenwriting and didn’t get to direct until he was 37, with Critters 2
- Terry Gilliam was 35 when he made his first feature
- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was 37 when he did Amores Perros
- Ang Lee was 38 when he did his first film
- Tom Holland was 43 when he directed Fright Night
- Sam Mendes was 34 when he debuted with American Beauty
And the list goes on. Point being: it’s never too late.
Dread Central: What have you seen lately in the horror genre that’s been particularly exciting for you?
Bill Lustig: Well, I saw a Brazilian movie recently called Night Shifter, which I thought was a really great movie. I saw a movie called Heart Plus Knife. It’s a French movie that is a really good Neo-Giallo film. This one is really good. It’s got a good script, good acting, and it’s an excellent movie.
I’m usually not a big fan of mainstream horror, like It and things like that. I’m less interested in those films. I’ve seen them, but they don’t really resonate for me. It’s mostly the lower-budgeted, more D-movie horror that I enjoy seeing.
DC: You’ve been a big fan of foreign horror films for a really long time, how were you able to first get introduced to these films?
BL: Well, most of them were released in America through tax shelter groups in the ‘70s.
BL: They really didn’t have a strong U.S. market. The reason I enjoy foreign horror films is they look like movies. They really were Art House movies. So they really have a great look photographically. There was attention to music and to audio. They were real movies, whereas I always felt the ones made in America, especially the ones made out of California for AIP, New World, and Crowd International, all those movies felt like TV movies.
DC: Right. They were too polished.
BL: They were over-lit because they wanted them to work in drive-ins. They just had a TV feel that I hated, and still do.
DC: There’s something magic about films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where directors are working with low budgets and, as a result, the movies have this really gritty, 16-millimeter look that has an urgent and kinetic feel. They just have a ruthlessness that is tangibly frightening for a lot of people on a very natural level. Last House on the Left had that in a big way, as did Maniac obviously.
BL: Anytime people would ask me where’s the next great horror film coming from, I tell them it’s going to be coming from Detroit. It’s going to be coming from Austin. It’s going to be coming from Pittsburgh, or New York. It’s not going to come out of Hollywood.
BL: I feel that filmmakers like myself and Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper and George Romero, we weren’t working with a rule book. We were out there making movies and, what makes them (I think) interesting is, we were doing things that Hollywood would consider verboten. That’s what gave these films their resonance.
DC: Is it true that the inception for Maniac was somebody suggesting that you make ‘Jaws on land’?
BL: I joke about it but it’s really true. That was the first thought. Then it went further into making a character that was a compilation of 70’s serial killers.
DC: Oh, that’s interesting. So it was obviously a time period where there were a number of serial killers that were stalking streets.
BL: The 70’s I considered to be the golden age of serial killers. You had Ted Bundy. You had Henry Lee Lucas. You had John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz. You had all of these really colorful serial killers. Today serial killers are mostly that weird guy down the street who kidnaps, rapes and murders. Very boring. Back in the 70s, these guys had panache!
John Wayne Gacy was a clown at children’s birthday parties during the day, and at night he’d stalk the streets picking up young boys, bringing them back to his home where he would have sex with them, kill them, and bury them under his house. How much more interesting a character can that be? Henry Lee Lucas, his mother used to dress him up as a girl because she wanted a girl. I could go on and on. David Burkowitz getting orders from his neighbor’s dog.
How about Ted Bundy? Ted Bundy was the kind of guy who girls were still wetting themselves over when he was on trial for all the murders. They considered him to be so handsome and charismatic and charming and all the rest.
DC: So a fear of serial killers was really in the zeitgeist around the time you wrote and produced Maniac?
BL: It was a fear and fascination.
DC: When you were talking to Mick Gariss about Maniac on Post Mortem, you said that investors jump on board when the train leaves the station. In other words, when investors see that the movie’s in motion, that’s when they get interested, instead of when you have an abstract idea for a movie on a piece of paper…
BL: Exactly. I’ve always taken the approach that you’ve got to put the train on the tracks and get it moving. That’s when investors jump on board. It’s not the textbook advice that people would give you, but to me, on a practical level, you have to take that risk, especially when you try to make your first films. You have to do that.
DC: Yeah. Investors obviously get pitched movies all the time when people say, “I have a script,” or “I have an idea,” or “I have a concept,” and “Will you take a meeting?” Is it just a matter of them needing to see actual, tangible action being taken on a movie in order for them to think “Alright, this kid is legit. He actually has something”?
BL: It creates a momentum. It’s always like that though, even if you’re doing studio films. It’s always trying to create a sense of urgency for somebody to make a financial decision.
BL: Very rarely do things happen where the investors are in from inception, where they’re there from the beginning. You’ve always got to create a certain scenario of urgency. If you don’t do it, somebody else is going to do it. We’ve got the script. We just signed this actor. You’re always trying to find ways to create a sense of urgency for investors to come on board.
DC: So, for those indie filmmakers out there who are just scraping to get their low-budget movies off the ground and they don’t have a ton of money, what are the things they can do to create urgency and to get that train on the tracks in the very beginning?
BL: Well, it’s going out there. Firstly, today, you don’t have that big of a hurdle to get to make a movie. You can go out with a video camera and make a movie.
BL: Back when I was making movies, it had to be on film. Film was inherently expensive: the equipment, the film, the processing, all that, there was a certain amount of money you needed. Now it’s almost like you can go out with zero dollars and make something happen.
DC: It’s the good news and the bad news. It’s good for filmmakers, but it also floods the market. There’s a lot more competition nowadays it seems.
BL: Well, I don’t know if it’s competition. I would say a lot more shitty films.
DC: Yeah, that’s probably more accurate.
BL: Because anybody can go out and really make a movie.
DC: Right. Yeah, you can do it with your smartphone like Soderberg.
BL: Yeah. A friend of mine, Sean Baker, did a movie with two iPhones that was terrific, called Tangerine.
DC: Oh, that’s right.
BL: It was brilliant.
DC: Yeah. I bet it really had that gritty kind of handheld look that a lot of old, great exploitation movies had, but in a modern way, since it was an iPhone.
BL: Yeah, it is a really good movie.
DC: There’s a great story about when you took Maniac on the festival circuit and you brought it to Cannes. You had a producer’s rep who had a very interesting strategy for selling it.
BL: When we went to premiere to Cannes, I wanted them to play it at a Dolby stereo theater, which at the time was only the big theaters in Cannes. My sales agent said, “No, we’ve got to play it at the smallest theater we can.” It was a brilliant marketing move because when we premiered Maniac, many of the buyer/distributors were turned away because they said you couldn’t get in because there was not enough room.
BL: Plus he loaded it with local kids to sit among the distributors who got their reactions to the movie. So, between the two things, it created a buzz for the film at Cannes, and a demand for the film, because no one ever asked, “Oh, how many seats were in the theater?” They only heard that somebody went and couldn’t get in, was turned away.
DC: That’s pretty amazing, to me, that’s a lesson in showmanship and PR.
BL: Yeah, it went against my wishes but I couldn’t have thanked them more.
DC: It’s pretty brilliant.So Maniac was released in 1980, Tom Savini must have been just off the heels of Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. How did you get him involved?
BL: Actually, what happened was, I had snuck into an advanced screening of Dawn of the Dead and was blown away by the effects. So, when we got ready to do Maniac, I wanted Tom Savini to do the effects. Tom Savini happened to be shooting the original Friday the 13th in New Jersey, so we made an appointment to see him.
Joe Spinell, Andy Galardi and myself drove to the set of Friday the 13th, to meet with Tom Savini. We told him about our movie, but the real hook for Savini was he had just broken up with a girl in Pittsburgh and he didn’t want to go back to Pittsburgh when Friday the 13th wrapped. So he said, “Can you get me an apartment in New York for me to stay so I don’t have to go back to Pittsburgh?” We said, “Sure.” We got him an apartment, and that’s how we got Tom Savini.
DC: That was a pretty advantageous way to get him. So I grew up in Manhattan, but I never got to experience the Grindhouse era of New York’s 42nd street. What were some of your fondest memories of that time period?
BL: Oh, God. That was my home away from home. I saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre there the second day it opened and remember the audience going completely crazy during the movie. It was bedlam in the theater because it was the very first time, I think, in 42nd Street history, where the movie more than delivered on the poster’s promise. Which is rare.
DC: Quentin Tarantino has called you one of his favorite directors, and you almost directed True Romance. Is that right?
BL: Yes, that’s true. I worked on it for a year … I was doing the film at a budget of three million dollars. It was financed. I was in pre-production, casting, location scouting. Tony Scott was sent True Romance and fell in love with the script and basically said, “I want to direct this movie.” So it was “Goodbye, Bill.” I was paid. I own a piece of the movie. I think, at the time, he [Tony Scott] was the highest-grossing director in the world.
DC: Got it. So you and Sam Raimi were contemporaries…
BL: Yes. Sam is a very dear friend.
DC: You two were both making your movies around the same time. Evil Dead came out in ’81, whereas Maniac came out in 1980. What did you guys learn from each other?
BL: Well, it was interesting, I guess because I was the first guy with Maniac, I became a bit of a mentor from the business side to Sam. He would ask me questions because he was trying to sell Evil Dead. But he was so obviously an enormously talented guy. Very, very smart. Hell of a nice guy.
I remember the day we shot Maniac Cop. He was waiting for the financing for Dark Man. He was in New York. I think he was sleeping at some girl’s apartment and he was waiting and biting his nails waiting for the financing to happen on Dark Man. Suddenly I say, “Come on, Sam. We’re going to go out and shoot a movie called Maniac Cop. I don’t have a script.”
I called on Bruce. We were going to go out St. Patrick’s Day. He said, “Can I be in it?” I said, “Sure.” Larry (Cohen) wrote that page of script for the news reporter and we went out and shot it. It was fun.
DC: That’s so cool. What was it like working with Larry Cohen?
BL: Larry is a brilliant idea man. There’s no doubt about it.
DC: So you went to NYU Film School and I was wondering if you recommend film school for aspiring directors.
BL: Well, I only went for two semesters. I thought it was wonderful as far as networking was concerned. There was a lot of positive, but here’s the thing. When I went to film school I had already amassed years of experience working on sets as a production assistant, working in the editing room. I really walked into film school with a lot of experience, so I didn’t really gain much except I got my hands on 16-millimeter equipment and got to network with people.
I don’t recommend film school in and of itself. I think practical experience trumps film school. I really think that if you’re an aspiring filmmaker you’ve got to start young. If you’re not making your first feature in your early 20s, you’re getting too old to do it. I think, if you’re not on track by the time you’re 30 years old, you’ve got to find another profession. Hate to be so blunt, but it’s true.
DC: So with that in mind, given the career that you’ve had, what advice would you have given to your 25-year-old self when you were making Maniac?
BL: Looking back, and this is personal for me, I had basically low self-esteem because I was a high school dropout. I was never good at school. Filmmaking, in my family, was looked upon as a joke, in that it wasn’t a real profession.
BL: Also, because I had started in adult films, I always felt I was an underdog. So I didn’t really appreciate that I had made a pretty decent movie when I made Maniac. I always believed the bad reviews and questioned the good reviews. At the time I made Maniac, there were many, many bad reviews … Back when I made the movie it was unanimously dismissed by the mainstream critics.
I always moved forward, but always feeling like I wasn’t good enough to go into the mainstream. I never got Hollywood. Doing Blue Underground is sort of a way that I don’t have to deal with certain things. I always felt I operated best when I was on my own. I never felt good at being part of something. I always felt better when I was doing making decisions on my own.
DC: Instead of having to deal with the studio system?
BL: Yeah, instead of dealing with producers. When I was dealing with producers later on, it was challenging for me, and I wasn’t good at it.
BL: When I made Maniac Cop, Jim Glickenhaus and I basically agreed on a budget, and I went out and made the movie and they saw it when it was finished. Nobody was there. I signed the checkbook, I did everything. It was easy to do. Maniac Cop 2, the same way, it was my movie. For better or worse, I did everything. It’s easier for me to do that. It’s harder when I have to deal with the politics.
DC: So you started out directing adult movies. What are some of the biggest parallels between directing porn and directing exploitation horror?
BL: Back then, it was identical because porn films were being shot on 35-millimeter and 16-millimeter for theatrical release. So the process, from a technical standpoint, was exactly the same. There really wasn’t that big a difference as far as the making of the films. Obviously, there’s different values that are important in them, but it really wasn’t, at that time, much different. In fact, the very first adult film that I worked on as a production assistant, the crew had just come off of working on a movie that became Super Fly.
DC: Oh, my God. That’s really cool.
BL: Yeah, they were complaining about this movie they were shooting in Harlem and how low-budget it was, and how they were shooting with real pushers and real drugs.
DC: Whoa! So, I don’t like asking people what their favorite scary movie is, because nobody likes answering that question, but I have different variations on that question. So, for you, I’m wondering what’s your favorite Bava, what’s your favorite Argento, and what’s your favorite Fulci?
BL: Okay, well, I would like to go back to your first question that you aborted.
BL: Because my favorite creepy movie that always sends a chill is Carnival of Souls.
BL: That’s the movie that really is scary to me. Chainsaw Massacre was visceral. Same with the George Romero films. But answering your question, my favorite Mario Bava film is Blood and Black Lace.
DC: Mine too.
BL: My favorite Argento is Deep Red and, close second, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. My favorite Fulci I would say is probably Zombie with City of the Living Dead as a close second.
DC: So what are you working on nowadays?
BL: I’m actually working on a 4K of New York Ripper as we speak and a Two Evil Eyes 4K.
DC: When it comes to filmmaking and directing, there’s a lot of resources out there by self-appointed “experts”. A lot of which is BS. However, were there any resources or books that you would consider valuable for filmmakers, that helped you in some way?
BL: There were many. The one that sprung to mind, as you were asking the question was Sydney Lumet’s book On Directing, it’s amazing. It’s really an important book for filmmakers. Most filmmakers can do the technical stuff. One way or another, they can make a film happen technically, but it’s guys like Sydney Lumet that take it to the next level. His book really gives you insight into a real director.
One of the other books that was important to me was Frank Capra’s book … One of the things I learned from the Capra book was, during the editorial process, to periodically take the film and screen it on a big screen. You’ll see things that you wind up fixing. That you don’t see when you’re editing.
DC: Right. Right, because what can you really see on an Avid compared to a big screen?
BL: But it’s mostly in the form of pacing.
BL: Pacing. Because key editorial is all about pacing. You get the rhythm when you put it up on a big screen.
DC: Okay, that’s great advice.
BL: Another thing that I recommend is, I’ve been a reader of American Cinematography since the late ‘60s. I’ve been a subscriber–a constant, nonstop subscriber. When you read American Cinematography, it’s not reading just one article. It’s the cumulative. You really get more insight into filmmaking by reading those articles. It should be a monthly exercise to spend a few hours devouring the American Cinematographer magazine.
DC: Okay, well, I’m going to get my subscription right now. Bill, this was a real privilege. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
BL: It’s my pleasure.