This is going to start with a bit of first-person reflecting, so I hope you’ll indulge me. For the last decade, I have directed Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and programmed for a whole slew of other film festivals in San Diego. None of these are easy jobs, but they are part of a deeply-ingrained calling that, at the heart of it, is simply to share stories with other people. This drive is intensely strong, and it is one that has motivated me through crises of both confidence and negative bank accounts.
In these endeavors I have had a number of models I have looked to–people who seemed to have that same quixotic passion. One of those people was Bob Shaye. Us horror fans, of course, will always have Shaye’s New Line Cinema to thank for the entire Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but my interest in him came from the early years of his company in the 1960s–a time when the studio system was crumbling and a new creative chaos was giving birth to some interesting films. New Line Cinema at the time was a shoestring operation that programmed exhibitions of subversive, outré, or just plain oddball arthouse, exploitation, documentary, or foreign films to small venues or college campuses. This was not a Hollywood mogul; this was a guy from blue-collar Detroit who went to law school, but couldn’t calm the searing call of celluloid.
This was also the guy who, as the legend goes, when he hit a financial homerun exhibiting a 16mm print of Reefer Madness, ended up writing a $50,000 check to the woman who supplied him that print. All without expectation or contract. If that story is true, it is probably the single most un-Hollywood story I have ever heard. Since I am from Baltimore, I also can’t ignore that it was Bob’s New Line Cinema that brought John Waters’s Pink Flamingos into the real limelight.
I had the honor today of having a long conversation with Bob Shaye, whose film Ambition hit VOD on September 20th from his own Unique Features (which he started with his long-time New Line partner, the late Michael Lynne), with distribution from Shout! Factory.
I don’t mean to over-gush in this writing (perhaps too late). One thing I can say about Bob, is that he is a storyteller through and through. During our talk, he straddled the line between humility and showmanship that was as curious and somehow as genuine as the almost paradoxical relationship between his identity as a renegade production company owner, and the company owner that gave us the behemoth known as Lord of the Rings.
Ambition would fit nicely into the psychological thriller category, with its DNA firmly informed by Psycho, Douglas Sirk melodrama, and the teen horrors of Shaye’s own back catalog (there is even an overt quoting of everyone’s favorite knife-gloved dream boogieman). It follows a young violinist, desperate to join a prestigious conservatory, whose tightly-wound ambition is causing some severe paranoia–especially when deaths start happening. As the film progresses, the notions of what is real or not real become increasingly unclear. I think that’s all you need to know before you hear more from the man himself. But first, we talk about those early New Line years:
Bob Shaye: I was at the New York Film Festival, and I found myself talk about what New Line’s thing was. And it was, when we got started, to find little cult communities. Communities that really liked John Waters or liked Reefer Madness or Menace II Society, or House Party.
We couldn’t afford to make big movies for big audiences, so we focuses on smaller movies that were going to delight smaller audiences. To give you a little bit of a feeling, especially with VOD and everything like that, but that idea of “cult”. . . “cult’s” the wrong word, but you could maybe find something.
Dread Central: Boutique cinema?
BS: Boutique is right! Exactly! Everything doesn’t have to be roast beef and mashed potatoes. By the way, we couldn’t afford roast beef and mashed potatoes in the movie business! So finding audiences that we thought were ready to cast aside the general idea of what was supposed to be entertaining, and to entertain them with more specific ideas.
And we actually attracted a very talented team of development executives who understood the role and the problem. The problem, of course, was that we were outsiders. And we could never break into the Hollywood community because we weren’t brought up in the mailer room, we were brought up in my living room.
Even Netflix and Amazon are trying to define different discreet audience groups and to serve those audience groups particularly. That’s how New Line really started off with its success. Of course, we ended up with Lord of the Rings under my watch, and that’s a pretty big boutique!
It’s not the Bible, but it’s pretty widespread, so we went from John Waters to Lord of the Rings, and now we’re moving back to Ambition, even though it’s not New Line anymore, it’s… [and here Bob says with great fanfare]
Ambition was really designed for millennial women, and I think that that’s an unserved group for a boutique film, if you will. And that’s what we tried to do. And actually that’s been the strongest reaction to the movie is young women.
And I like that, I mean it was designed that way, but I think people more and more are getting to say, “Who wants to be a part of this whole entertainment community that’s just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger?”
DC: I read that you cite how the story of Ambition reminded you of some scenes from your first short film “Image.” In those interviews, you say that the connection has to do with the breakdown of what is real or unreal, and you go on to describe how you see that again with the current notion of “fake news.” You said you didn’t want to elaborate. Well, I am hoping you will elaborate. There is definitely enough reason that concept resonated with you enough to put it into this film.
BS: That’s correct. I actually was at the New York Film Festival today and I saw a Japanese film about a woman who, you’re watching it for a while and you’re believing it, and all of a sudden things start switching around, and it gets kind of puzzling and you realize your’e not really watching it from an objective point of view. My first short was very modest, and it dealt with that issue, which is all over everything today about how do you know who or what you can trust?
I spoke once at a conference about that very subject and I recalled while making the speech that I once saw on a Dyson ad, Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner! When you get to Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner, then you know that’s not real, but the point is that the digitalization of reality has come to a point where we don’t really know who to trust, I mean do you trust your dad? Pretty soon your father’s going to be a robot!
Actually, I happen to be a science fiction fan, and there’s plenty of stories about that, too!
It’s interesting that the movie business has a description of that particular storytelling technique–the unreliable narrator. You walk into a movie theater and you see images because we’ve learned from our cameras that you take a picture of something and it’s recorded.
These things, they appear recorded, but they may be fabricated. Some political figures that we have in this world say things–it’s just a kind of lying. To convince people; to make it simple. How do we really know what’s true? This is kind of an anecdote about liars, including filmmakers and actors, who are representing things to be the story, which may not be the story that is really happening.
I suppose it’s kind of a cautionary tale. It seems to me you have to ask twice–at least twice–about everything you hear about. I think one of the things that’s happening up to and including the March for the Climate that happened today is that the younger generation, partly my intended audience, is starting to ask questions about the world around them and cars that only get 10 miles to the gallon and there’s things that people are trying to sell us that aren’t true.
So, ultimately, if you take it to it’s dangerous conclusion, then we all should be very paranoid about everything and be careful about what you eat and what people say to you. There is a midpoint where a lot of things don’t really matter, up to and including going into a movie and following and at the end you find that’s not what happened and you say, “oh, I really god fooled and got led down the garden path, as they used to say.”
There’s a lot of leading down the garden path that is, I think, a little bit cautionary. And this is just a sort of, as I say, an anecdote about that issue. Don’t be skeptical of everything–like your next ice cream cone–but be a little more skeptical about what you see and what you’er told because there may be in some of these situations issues that you are being sold out about. I don’t mean to be a social philosopher…
DC: Ha! Well, I did ask you to be one.
BS: Well, it’s what filmmakers do–it’s what artists do.
DC: I’m really interested in what you are saying, and to connect it to Ambition, you brought up the idea of images, especially manipulated images, and you brought up the unreliable narrator. In Ambition, you do make use of the unreliable narrator, but it’s not an expository narrator, it’s not through words.
I feel like, in Ambition, you’re playing with images. You have an unreliable camera. I wonder if you can talk about how you planned on misleading an audience with the way it’s shot, and also with the way you have the characters interact with each other.
BS: I try to encourage the actors to interact with each other, to get the theme that’s going on, and to get them to open up and to even change the story a little bit. It makes them more comfortable.
I’m much more of an actor’s director than a DPs kind of director who’s worried about the lighting and stuff. I think we had a great DP–Brian Hubbard–on Ambition and I quite trusted him to come up with the setups, except when there was something special that I really wanted to show, and he was very cooperative about that.
But for me it’s more about getting the actors to believe what they are saying and to become another character. It’s like a chameleon almost–I mean they can really adapt to the story that’s presented to them and be that person.
I let them do their thing, in a way. Every actor in every movie I’ve been involved with, either as a producer or as a director, has really embraced the role and added a lot to the script.
Even from the auditions that I did with Giles, for instance, the English guy, he really figured it out. He knew how to make himself into a romantic character. Sonoya, who was the charming but nasty girlfriend of the lead is a much different individual, but that’s another exciting thing about being a director, whether it’s in a theater or movies or whatever it is– that you offer ideas to actors and then see how they can extrapolate from those ideas. At least that’s the way I do it.
And in this case, I think they really got what the objective of the movie was. They understood what was going on. Katherine did for sure, and she really turned it into something that was more than just what was on the page, and that sort of excited me.
DC: You definitely brought up Giles Matthey and Katherine Hughes, they really do, each of them, play a kind of Janus figure where you see two very different faces of both their characters.
BS: You know, the first table reading that we did of the script actually scared me a little bit. Because they were so millennial that they were not even projecting, and it’s just not the way I learned about drama.
They picked up on it when we started shooting and it was remarkable that they really have that chameleon quality that good actors have. I’m always impressed with kids.
I’ve also found that, for some reason, I’ve made three movies and all of them have had younger people in them. I’ve had very few older people, maybe a few moms and dads here and there. The actors have always been youthful, and I enjoy a lot working with younger people, especially good actors who are younger. It’s remarkable how they can create like any other artist in any artform.
I tried to be an actor for a while, and that’s one of the rules I taught myself is that you have to know what you can do well and what you can’t do well. Don’t get too obsessed with the things that you can’t do well. Sometimes it’s better just to drop it and go back to the things that you do well. At least it makes like a little easier for you.
DC: All this talk about characters in Ambition reminds me of another character not played by an actor, and I’m going to say that’s the storm. With that storm, there are some definite reminiscences of Psycho, but I was actually reminded of King Lear, where the storm in there reflects Lear’s deteriorating psyche.
BS: Well, we shot this in Baton Rouge, and there was actually a sign that we shot on the first day that I ended up taking out of the movie because it was just a little clumsy, but if you ever go to Baton Rouge, I mean Louisiana is a huge flood area, there’s flood evacuation signs all over the place. So to have a big storm come to be this set piece where everybody is almost isolated. All these anxieties come out in her imaginations from these characters in the middle of this big storm sort of fit perfectly!
DC: The last question I have, Bob, bringing you into this, is that you have been described as being a pretty ambitious guy yourself. Starting this company New Line that has become legendary over the last several decades and now your new company Unique Features, so I find it interesting you are now making a film called Ambition about the dangers of ambition. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that.
BS: I don’t think my professional life was a much driven by ambition as the word implies. It was always driven by desire. I absolutely love turning people on. I like to cook a lot and put a decent dinner on the table for guests.
I also think there’s a kind of moral obligation, which too many people in the movie business have too much ambition and not enough recognition of, which is the obligation that they are inviting people to not only pay 10 or 15 bucks or whatever it is, but to see a film and, the more expensive thing, to spend an hour and a half of their time sitting watching some of your ideas!
I bet there are a lot more people who put books down than who spend that hour and a half or two hours seeing a movie because they just want to see it through to its conclusion. There is, as I said, a kind of quasi-moral obligation not to bore the Hell out of them! And to make them excited and to make them interested and fool them and make them laugh and make them cry and all those things!
Which is stuff that really turns me on a lot. My ambition is really to be an entertainer. It’s not for money, it’s not for power, or to make the point. Its more about can I make something that people are going to come out of the movie theater from and say, “ah, that was a good movie!”
I remember I had a great experience after The Mask opened, which I thought was a really good movie, and I was really proud of it and certainly proud of Jim Carrey and all the people who were in it. I was in a taxicab going down Central Park west of New York. There was a guy walking with his girlfriend–I guess I was stopped at a light–because he was walking by talking to her about something and he said, “Wow, smokin!”
And I realized that he was quoting Jim Carrey from what I deem to be, at least in certain part, my film. Obviously, I didn’t direct it or act in it, but at least I was responsible in some way for making it happen. And it made me feel like there’s a guy who walked away from the movie with a line from Jim Carrey and it influenced him so he’s using it as a tagline for a conversation that he’s having with his girlfriend!
That’s the kind of thing that really excites me. Or like when Gandalf say’s “you shall not pass!” There’s people all over the world who still say that line out of the clear blue sky because it sticks with them. And that’s an exciting thing! You feel like you have at least a little responsibility for creating some sort of icon that gets adopted by so many people and it’s meaningful to them in some kind of way.
And it’s not just a throwaway magazine or newspaper or hamburger. It’s something that’s–well, to get back to cooking, it’s one of those meals that you remember for a long time. I don’t have any pretentions in thinking that Ambition is a brilliant movie that’s going to last forever, but I very much appreciate your questions because it’s about offering people this hour and a half of entertainment which is where you get involved with the characters, you follow their plight.
And maybe you find out you’ve been duped. Which you might find is relatable to people who are untrustworthy or deceitful, which is always disturbing, surprising, and meaningful. I see this movie more as a kind of–the French say oeuvre–it’s not a symphony, but it’s a concerto or something like that. I hope it can cause people to reflect on things like you asked me before–is seeing really believing?
DC: Well, Bob, I think to end on that music analogy is really apropos of this particular film! I’ve been following your work for as long as I can remember, so this has been truly an honor, so thank you for taking this time.
BS: Oh, well that’s nice of you to say! I’m just a guy with some ideas, and I’m sure you’ve got some great ones too. I appreciate your interest, I really do. Thank you!