William Lustig Interview - Exclusive!

William Lustig Interview - Exclusive!
The filmmaker talks about Maniac and Hit List
Updated: 03-25-2008

Director Bill Lustig will be hosting and doing a Q&A on Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at the Los Angeles grindhouse, The New Beverly Cinema. He'll be showing his infamous 1980 horror film Maniac (not related to the Maniac Cop films, but definitely a titling tie-in), and Hit List, an adrenaline-fueled actioner starring Jan-Michael Vincent.



Staci Layne Wilson / Horror.com: These New Beverly grindhouse nights are quite popular in L.A. I'm a pretty recent convert myself, so I don't know if you've done this before?


Bill Lustig: Yes. I did it a couple of years ago, now. They showed Maniac Cop.


Q: What kind of questions do people usually ask you at these Q&A's? Especially with Maniac, since it has such a notorious reputation.


Bill Lustig: I'm trying to remember some of the questions... I’m on autopilot sometimes, because I’ve been asked the same questions so often, but I mainly they'll ask about Tom Savini. And of course they will ask what it was like working with Joe Spinell, and that whole experience.


Q: And I imagine the misogyny in the movie is another theme that comes up with some people?


Bill Lustig: Not so much, I don't get that with the horror crowd, and I think people are polite out there, and hardly discussed that. They don't want to talk about that aspect of these kind of films.


Q: Really? Huh. I'm still seeing a lot on current films, like the Hostels and Saws.


Bill Lustig: That used to be a topic that Maniac became the poster child for.What I found fascinating is, that the woman for the National Organization of Women in Los Angeles, who held a news conference in front of the Hollywood Boulevard theater while holding the ad for the movie — admitting she hadn’t seen the film by the way — but she was there opening day to condemn the movie based I guess primarily for the poster… A year or so later, she was arrested for murder. I don't know, but to me throwing ketchup around in a movie is a far cry from murdering somebody. Just as we’ve recently seen with Eliot Spitzer in New York. I'm very skeptical of society’s watchdogs, morality watchdogs in particular.


Q:  Please forgive my ignorance, but although I have seen Maniac several times, I never caught Maniac Cop. Are the two films related?


Bill Lustig: Despite Maniac’s commercial success, I never intended to do a sequel since I felt the film had properly concluded.  During a lunch with my friend Larry Cohen, Larry asked why I hadn’t done a Maniac follow-up and told him why I didn’t think it was feasible. During this conversation Larry came up with the title Maniac Cop. At this time films like RoboCop and Beverly Hills Cop were huge hits. Joining Maniac with Cop I thought was brilliant but more importantly very commercial. But Larry’s killer idea was the ad line, "You have the right to remain silent…Forever."


Q: Yeah, that's great. I'd see the movie on that, alone.


Bill Lustig: And so that is what put it over the top for me.


Q: Larry Cohen recently did Captivity, which is another one of these sort of torture/porn horror movies. What do you think about this trend?


Bill Lustig: Well, I haven't seen Captivity. I wanted to, but I haven't seen it yet. I did see the last Hostel film. I have not seen the last Saw film. I thought that the first Saw film was brilliant.


Q: The fourth one was really good, actually. The fourth one is excellent. It's the last of the Darren Bousman ones. He did two through four.


Bill Lustig: Okay. Well, I haven't seen it. But I could tell you that watching Hostel II during the screening, which Eli graciously invited me to… So I feel very bad to be saying this, but I found myself looking away from the screen. I'm a guy who’s seen everything. But I found it to be unpleasant. It no longer became entertaining, and I don't know exactly where that fine line is, which takes violent acts from the unpleasant to the entertaining. I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre I could watch it every day of the week. It's a great, great movie, and yet, when I watched Hostel II, I felt sad. I felt embarrassed for the actors, in particular, I felt kind of depressed. That's the main thing I felt. I felt like I shouldn't be seeing this. This is just not right, and it's just horrible for no purpose.


Q: So what is it aside from Tom Savini's head blowing up — which is my favorite thing in Maniac — what is it that makes Maniac maybe more entertaining and less exploitive or less disturbing than Hostel II?


Bill Lustig: I think that when it first came out, it was perceived both by the horror and  mainstream press as being just an exercise in violence and being very thing that I just discussed with you. You know, being unpleasant, being kind of despicable. But what happened in 25 years that it has existed, it's morphed into something else. I think that what has helped to make Maniac resonate is the performance by Joe Spinell. I think that after you get beyond the violence and you just sort of focus on him, it's a very interesting multilayered performance. He added a lot of texture to that. There is a lot of subtleties and things that he did in the film also the fact that they don't make movies like that anymore. I mean, it was kind of a low budget, gritty, street movie that featured a world that does not exist. The urban decay of New York.


Q: That's true. There is the nostalgia factor.


Bill Lustig: There is the nostalgia factor to it. I think there is a little bit of that. But I really I think, if I had to say there was one thing, it would be Joe.


Q: Did you know him prior to casting him in this film?


Bill Lustig: I didn't cast him, we developed the movie together. He was my partner in the film. I met Joe during the production of the NY cop movie The Seven-Ups, we became instant friends because of our mutual love of horror movies. We talked about horror films all the time, which turned into let’s make the ultimate horror film. Joe was also an insomniac, who would call me up in the middle of the night, "Hey lets go catch Hollywood Hillside Strangler on 42nd St, the next show goes on at 3:45am." And I would of course get dressed, jump into a taxi and meet him. We saw many of these movies together. I was an aspiring filmmaker, and he wanted to star, write and produce a movie like his friend Sylvester Stallone. Joe had been a very successful supporting actor in movies like the Godfather and Taxi Driver - he was a high profile, well paid character actor. Stallone had his Rocky; Joe had his Maniac. Trust me; he was really motivated by this competition with Stallone in his mind.


Q: How aware do you think movie fans are, on all the homage paid to Maniac throughout the years?


Bill Lustig: When I saw High Tension, with the scene in the bathroom of the gas station. I said, "My, this looks familiar, this looks mighty familiar". [laughter] I then listened to the commentary, and Alexandre Aja says right up front that this was his homage to movies like Maniac, which confirmed my suspicion. I was honored that my movie had inspired another filmmaker just as I had been inspired by the films of my era.


Q: That's pretty cool. Now, what is the other movie that is playing at the new Beverly?


Bill Lustig: Hit List.


Q: Okay, I have not seen that. So can you give me a little preview?


Bill Lustig: Well that movie came about because I kind of hit a career brick wall in New York. I did a movie called Vigilante after Maniac, after which I kind of went into a slump. For a lot of reasons I went through a period where I just felt things were not going the way I wanted them to go in my career. So I moved to LA and pitched Hit List to Cinetel, a very active company at the time in primarily straight-to-video movies. Hite List was the first movie where I was a director for hire. It was my first experience working with a producer.


During pre-production, Warner Bros. International became a partner in the film. Jan-Michael Vincent was on their short list of acceptable stars. So, Jan was hired but on the first day of production it was evident that he was a disaster. He was simply an alcoholic. But, the fun for me and I suspect as well for the audience was the great supporting cast I was allowed to hire.


While making the film, I didn't understand the politics of directing a film with a produces. I had produced and directed four films by the time I came to Los Angeles so it was difficult not to have the day-to-day control. Coming from NY, I was used to telling people what was on my mind, not varnishing my words. It’s a different temperament in LA, everybody goes to psychiatrists, and you know, you just can’t be blunt or yell at people in LA like you can in NY. So to make a long story short, during the making of the film. I was actually fired one day by the producers, but I didn't stop working. Following the dallies screening that evening I was officially re-hired. What I later learned was that a crew member who was an aspiring director, secretly sleeping with one of the producers was talking shit about me.


I flew to Cannes on my own dime to attend the Warner Int. Hit List screening. The Warner execs hadn’t seen the film yet. In short, they were ecstatic after the screening. They called it the best Warner action film since Nico (Above the Law’s foreign title). Frankly, I believe they over reacted but the Cinetel people were delighted. In fact, a few months later Warner Int. picked-up my next Cinetel film Relentless, so I guess they were sincere. Anyway, while checking out of the Cannes hotel I discovered to my surprise that Cinetel paid my hotel bill! What I learned on Hit List is that you’re king one day, a bum the next and a king again – the LA movie scene is totally ridiculous.


Q: Hit List is a vigilante movie in a sense?


Bill Lustig: It's kind of a vigilante film, I would call it more of a quest film. It's a film about Jan-Michael Vincent's character on a quest. It's based on High and Low, the Akira Kurosawa movie... If you have ever seen it?


Q: No, I'm not a big fan of Kurosawa. I haven't seen them all by any means, but I've seen enough of his movies to know that I don't really like them.


Bill Lustig: High and Low, I would say, is a different kind of Kurosawa film because it was a modern-day police procedure.


Q: Oh, really? I pretty much just know him from his samurai stuff.


Bill Lustig: Ed McBain… do you know Ed McBain?


Q: Yeah, absolutely. Crime novelist.


Bill Lustig: OK, so, it was based on an Ed McBain novel, wasn’t that the 87th Street Precinct series? Anyway, it was a unique Kurosawa movie.


Hit List is about a mob guy Leo Rossi in witness protection with his son, through an act of fate the neighbor’s kid, Jan-Michael Vincent's son is mistakenly kidnapped by Rip Torn’s henchman Lance Henrikson. It becomes a race against for Jan and Leo to rescue Jan’s son from his kidnapper. Charles Napier is the cop on the pair’s trail. It’s an old-fashioned fun B movie, but I love B movies. The supporting actors are a blast.


Q: How was it chosen to be on a double bill with Maniac for the New Beverly? Did you choose that pairing?


Bill Lustig: Eric Caidin whose Hollywood Book & Poster shop sponsors these Grindhouse screenings, loves the movie. He’s been asking about screening this film and Vigilante for several years.


Q: Are you doing the Q&A in between the movies?


Bill Lustig: After Hit List, but before Maniac.


Q: Excellent! We will see you there.


Bill Lustig: Thank you.


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