Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jeffrey Schwarz Resurrects William Castle with SPINE TINGLER!

As you guys probably know (and if you didn’t, I’m telling you now), I also write for AMC’s Monsterfest blog (where a condensed version of this piece can be found), which has been a good gig that’s getting a bit better by allowing me to expand into interviews for the site. This allowed me to chat with George Romero back in February and now it’s got me chatting with Jeffrey Schwarz, director of the new doco SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, which has been as long in the coming as it’s been in the making, which is to say too damn long. Castle was best known for his gimmicks, the crazy stunts like "Perceptio" (seats with buzzers) that got asses on seats, but the guy certainly led an interesting life and had a very rich career: Beyond the horror films, he worked with Orson Wells in his radio days, produced ROSEMARY’S BABY and made the fascinating but impossible-to-see SHANKS starring Marcel Marceu. As it turns out, Schwarz’s desire to make a Castle doco has also turned into a very, very nice career doing supplements for many big DVD titles throughout the years through his company, Automat Pictures, so the completion of SPINE TINGLER brings Schwarz and Automat full circle. The film is currently playing the festival circuit and will no doubt be available on DVD some time soon.

I spoke to Jeffrey as he was doing the long drive from San Francisco to L.A., where I’m sure he no doubt needed the distraction (it’s a nice drive – I’ve done it twice – but it’s a lot of long stretches of nothing at certain points). Thanks to Jeffrey and the AMC crew for allowing this to happen.

I was on the Automat site, looking up some of your past projects, and the one that got my attention was the documentary you guys did on Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING.

Yep, we did that a few years ago.

And you mention that it was DVD of the month in Fangoria

Yes, that’s right…

I was the one who anointed it DVD of the Month!

Really? Why thank you!

And you know how you got that?

No, how?

The Dick Miller Easter egg.



Thank you so much, that was so much fun. That was one of those jobs that don’t come up very often, but I knew the fans would appreciate it, like yourself, they’d be the ones who would really cherish that DVD. We just made it into an extended Fangoria article, so I tried to get everyone who could talk about THE HOWLING – Dee Wallace, Belinda Belaski, Rob Bottin, Dick Miller – that was so much fun to do.

Also the fact that you had John Sayles in there…

Yeah, Sayles, too

Because, I think it’s more that people don’t ask him, but he doesn’t really comment a lot on those days at New World and Avco Embassy.

Yeah, I guess there’s not a lot of documentaries that discuss that part of his career, but it was great to get him and Joe, and that’s how I met Joe and got him to be part of the William Castle film.

I have most of the William Castle DVDs and it seems as though we saw the roots of this documentary on those old featurettes.

Actually, when I first started developing this project I put together a little pitch reel for it; this was before I started Automat or started developing DVD content. I put together a presentation reel with interviews of people, like the guy who runs my local video store and Fred Olen Ray – it was very low rent, shot it high 8 – and I brought it to Sony, a little bit naively, thinking, “Of course, they’ll want to make this, they own all the William Castle movies”. And that’s not really the way it works with independent documentaries, I found out later. I didn’t really have a track record at the time, but the guy who was in charge of added value for DVDs – this was just when the format was just beginning – I guess he liked me and the pitch reel and he hired me to produce the DVD for THE TINGLER, which they were going to release as a 40th anniversary edition, although they didn’t realize that until I told them. It was just a lucky thing that I was there at that time, so I did a little featurette on THE TINGLER and that was back in ’99 and that’s how this whole thing doing featurettes for DVDs really started, but really I kept trying to get the feature off the ground. And then once they had released 5 William Castle titles I had all these interviews and I continued shooting interviews even after that was all over and eventually I had enough interviews to put a feature together and Sony let me keep the interviews, which was really cool of them. They didn’t encourage me or discourage me, I just kept doing it all on the side. After about 8 or 9 years we completed the film.

This wasn’t for Sony, then?

Oh no, not at all. This was completely, 100% independent.

Although there’s a chance that Sony might distribute it or are you still looking for distribution?

We’re looking right now. They’re looking at it right now, everybody’s looking at it. We haven’t secured distribution yet. I look upon this as a feature film, it’s way beyond a bonus feature, it’s a feature in and of itself. Hopefully companies will see the value in it and put it out.

What about some of the other studios he worked for? He worked primarily at Columbia, but he did some stuff at Universal and he ended his run at Paramount. Any participation from them, did you have to get their OK on some of this stuff?

I licensed all the film clips from the various studios, so it’s all legit. You can license the clips, but it’s very expensive so you want to be careful about how much you use. You license it for a certain amount of time, or for festivals only, and then you can license the clips for home media, once you distribute the film. Anybody can make a movie like this as long as you pay the studios; they’re not interested in preserving their own history necessarily. These are revenue-generating things for them, so it’s very difficult to do a film like this independently. We didn’t go the “Fair Use” route; some filmmakers are going fair use and basically just using anything they want from any film ever made, like THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED and some others, like HOLLYWOOD CHINESE also went fair use.

What was the one thing about Castle that you were surprised to learn?

I knew all of the fact about his career, so that wasn’t a problem, and it wouldn’t be much of a film if it were just a catalog of achievements, so the challenge was really to find out what made him tick, and a lot of it was brought to the table by his family, particularly Terry Castle, his daughter, and close friends of his who worked with him, and I didn’t know that he was so insecure. You have this vision of William Castle as this very larger-than-life brash showman full of bravado, but he lived much of his life in fear: fear of failure that his films wouldn’t be successful, and he was full of insecurities and that’s something you wouldn’t guess upfront. He kind of created this William Castle persona a little bit to sort of push himself forward and masks those insecurities, so I learned that he lived his life as any minute the roof could cave in. Some of this came from his upbringing; when he was a little kid his parents both died when he was very young and he was left an orphan, so when something like that happens to it sort of blurs your point of view on life and how fragile everything is and how you have to protect what you have.

The whole reason he did the gimmicks was really because of that fear that the films would fail without them or they wouldn’t be embraced by audiences if he didn’t add that extra insurance for himself. So that’s really how the gimmicks started. When he did his first scary film he had already been a director for many years and had a lot of films under his belt. MACABRE was his first horror film. He made that independently and he mortgaged his house to finance it, so he had his career on the line, his financial security was on the line, and the movie didn’t have any stars, not a big budget film, no big marketing budget of any kind, so he came up with the life insurance gimmick as insurance also for his film, that hopefully would get people talking. It worked beyond his wildest dreams; it was a very low budget movie that made him a couple of million dollars, so once that was a success he didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth and he did the next gimmick, which was “Emergo” for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, then “Perceptio” for THE TINGLER, one after the other, just to capitalize on the notoriety on them after each film.

Do you go into the gimmicks themselves and how he came up with each one and the work that went into them?

Sure, we talk about every gimmick he ever did. Like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, with the skeleton, we talked about how it was built up in the media how it was going to be the scariest thing you could possibly experience. He didn’t let the audience in on the fact that it was a skeleton, they just knew something was going to happen when they went into the theater, so the audience was prepared to be terrified when a rubber skeleton flew out and caused near riots at the theaters, with a lot of people screaming and kids trying to throw stuff at it, trying to knock it down. We also go into areas of his career, such as how he started and some of his early versions of the gimmicks when he was doing theater, and then after the gimmicks petered out, our third act is all about what happened to his career after the gimmicks stopped wearing out their welcome with the public in the mid to late 60s and going into ROSEMARY’S BABY and dealing with the changes in Hollywood and his final attempts to make a poetic horror film, SHANKS with Marcel Marceau.

I wanted to ask to ask you about that. I noticed Marceau is in the documentary and I was curious to know how you were able to get him to talk, as it were, about SHANKS.

Even though he’s a mime, he loved to talk. We interviewed him 2003, I believe. He was passing through L.A., performing at the Geffen Theater, and he was still performing up until the very end. We did his interview while he was here in L.A. and he jumped at the chance to talk about SHANKS because it’s his only starring role and he loved working with William Castle. You’d think the two of them would be so radically different, and they are – Marcel Marceau, the great artist and William Castle the schlockmeister – and they came together at a time when Castle was looking for a project that he could prove he was an artist that he was an artist as well as a showman. He found the property and cast Marceau because he felt he’d be right for the part and also it was sort of a gimmick, too, casting Marceau, and he loved talking about it. The film never got a chance; it was trashed by the critics and nobody got to see the movie because it played only for about a week. It never really has been seen properly and don’t hold your breath waiting for a DVD.

It really is such a one-of-a-kind film, and there’s not a heck of a lot of information out there about it, so I’m glad to hear it discussed.

I feel this is one of the more poignant segments of the film. This is Castle after ROSEMARY’S BABY, which he produced and wanted to direct but Robert Evans at the studio wouldn’t let him. Even though it was a huge hit he didn’t get any of the credit for it, it was considered a Polanski film, and rightly so. He was looking for something that could prove he could create something that was an artistic statement and he made that film at a time when he knew his life was coming to an end; he was very ill at the time he made that film and he’d already had some brushes with death. If you watch the film knowing that this was a man who was ill with a very serious heart condition and any day could decline further, it makes it a very poignant viewing experience.

When did you become a Castle fan? Did you grow up seeing THE TINGLER in Percepto?

I was one of those monster kids, reading Famous Monsters and all that stuff. The Castle films, they were talked about in those magazines and the books that I read, but this was before cable TV and DVDs, so they were sort of mythical films and I didn’t get to see them. But when I was in high school John Waters wrote an article about William Castle in Film Comment called, “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” and that’s when I was discovering John Waters, who became my favorite director. This was a whole new world that was opened up to me, this article by John, and so I went out and found his book [Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America] and, coincidentally, they revived his films and I was living in New York, so I would go down to Film Forum and I saw THE TINGLER in Percepto. Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum invented his own of Percepto and I experienced it firsthand; during that scene everybody was screaming their heads off and having such a good time and I was so amazed. This was about 30 years after the movie had been made and it still had the power to create pandemonium in the audience. So when I was going to film school I ran our film society and I showed all the Castle films at midnight and would try to get as many people into William Castle as I could. So when I came out to Los Angeles one of my goals was to try to figure out how to make this film. Inadvertently, it kind of helped to make a career doing these kinds of pop culture documentaries, so it’s sort of come full circle.

Do feel that people have forgotten about people have forgotten about Castle? You have your baby boomers that grew up with them, but are you find that you’re coming across a lot of young people who tell you they never knew about these movies?

It’s a combination; our audiences are varied. We have the baby boomers that are coming to relive their childhoods, people who experienced “Percepto” firsthand, then you have the horror nuts who definitely know William Castle and have all the DVD and people who drawn to William Castle because of John Waters or the camp value of some of the films, and then you have people who never heard of him but are drawn to him as a kind of character. They think they haven’t heard of him, but then they see the film and they put all the pieces together; “Oh, that’s the guy from ROSEMARY’S BABY in the phone booth, I wondered who that guy is” and they start to see what kind of influence the guy had in marketing. We’re also getting young kids. I was in Cleveland just last week, and a little 8 year-old kid with his mom that came and his favorite director is William Castle and his favorite movie is THE TINGLER. His mom came in and asked, “Where’s the coward’s corner?”, and she was probably in her early thirties, so I guess that with DVD and the internet these films can be discovered, so hopefully this film will help more people discover William Castle. His daughter didn’t seem to think he had any kind of legacy until she realized that there were entire generations that grew up watching the films.

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