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An Interview with Brett Piper, Director of Muckman

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2011

Films directed by Brett Piper on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Brett Piper with Alison Whitney, Anju McIntyre

Your film Muckman - in a few words, what is it about?

 

It's about a washed up TV personality named Mickey O'Hara (there's a joke there that no one who's seen the movie seems to get) who tries to resurrect his career by heading off to the back woods of Pennsylvania to do a documentary on the Muckman.

 


In a way, your film is an hommage to 1950's drive-in science fiction movies. Is that a genre dear to you, and your genre favourites?

 

I love old monster and horror movies. The old Harryhausen movies, The Black Scorpion, the early Hammer films and other Brit gems like The Crawling Eye (Trollenberg Terror). Fiend Without a Face is a special favorite. There's a special quality to those films that has disappeared from genre movies. I think Planet of the Apes was the turning point. Up until then monster movies were being cranked out in a week by guys like Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here], but Apes showed that a major studio could make a prestige sci-fi film with a big name star and earn a ton of money. Now all the big studios are churning out science fiction and horror and comic book heroics, and we've lost the simplicity and charm of the old creature features. So I have mounted a personal campaign to revive what the French call le cinema Z.

 

Muckman also works as a spoof of current crappy In Search of...-style reality shows. Your thoughts about those?

 

Funny, there's one of those In Search of Bigfoot-type things on the tube even as I write this. These shows are interesting enough in their own way but they're basically a dead end --- you know they're not going to produce Sasquatch or Nessie or any of those guys. So I guess I'd classify them as moderately interesting time-wasters.

 

Speaking of TV-shows: In my opinion, Anju McIntyre/A.J. Khan almost steals the picture with her performance as bitchy TV host. What can you tell us about her, and what was your collaboration like?

 

She'll be happy to know she made such an impression. The first time I met A.J. was on Screaming Dead. I needed someone to model for some “art” photos to hang on a gallery wall and the EI guys suggested her since she was one of their regulars. She showed up at the studio and the first thing I asked her to do was strip naked and stick her head in a toilet. She seemed a little surprised but complied. (For the record the toilet was spotless --- I scrubbed it myself --- and probably never used. I found it in a warehouse.) After that she put on a nun's habit and was smeared with artificial shit made of oatmeal and peanut butter. Quite an introduction. She ended up playing the model in the opening scene as well and later starred in an episode of Shock-O-Rama. She's a good actress and a beautiful woman and I like her a lot personally, which makes it odd that I didn't use her more in my EI-movies, but I think the truth is she has a rather glamourous persona that doesn't quite mesh with a lot of my work. I have never, ever seen Anju in casual clothes (compared to, say, Julian Wells, who comes across like a real femme fatale on screen but will show up for rehearsal in jeans and sneakers - and still look great).

 

A few words about the rest of your cast and crew?

 

I brought in Anju and Alison (and later Buzz Cartier) and the rest of the cast were Polonia regulars. We pretty much wrote all the parts with specific people in mind. Everyone you see was the person we planned to use right from the beginning (well, with a couple of notable exceptions but I won't go into that. You can listen to the commentary if you're curious). The crew were likewise people Mark had worked with before. Matt Smith, the DP, goes all the way back to The House That Screamed in 2000. We didn't have a sound person. Whoever had free hands held the boon. This is a very bad idea.

 

Would you like to go into detail about the special effects in Muckman?

 

Very old style, very simple. They were a lot of work but dirt cheap. It took me maybe a month to build the monster suit. It was made in sections so that it would fit almost anyone. The first guy who tried it on was almost seven feet tall and thin. With the suit on he was close to eight feet tall and looked great, but for reasons I won't go into he bailed on us so we ended up with a shorter, slightly chunkier monster. Half a dozen people played the creature at various times, although I think Steve Diasparra, who also played Mickey, was Muckman most of the time. 

The stop motion creature at the end was a simple wire frame model. I built a miniature of the RV for him to tear apart. The roof was layered aluminum foil so it would tear like metal and still be poseable. It was the only part of the movie shot on film, using my 16mm Bolex with a single frame motor. It took maybe a week to shoot, working nights. I was fairly pleased with the way it came out, although the company that did the film-to-tape transfer did a lousy job. It had to be doctored in post to make it acceptable.

 

I have read somewhere (and I have forgotten where, so I might confuse things here) that Muckman was the lowest budgeted film of your entire career. Was this limiting, or maybe also inspiring?

 

It's true. The budget was so low I won't tell anyone, because too many people judge your movie by the money you spent. We actually went over budget by almost 50% and it still ended up being my cheapest movie! Which is more than Mark Polonia can say. It was certainly limiting, although not as much as you might think. The upside is that you don't have the pressure of trying to earn back a ton of money. If Muckman never makes a dime no one will be ruined. We'll just shrug it off and start another one.

 

Muckman was produced by Mark Polonia of the legendary Polonia Brothers, with whom you've worked before on quite a few occasions. What can you tell us about the man, and what was your collaboration like?

 

Mark is smarter than me when it comes to making movies. He's never tried to build a career on it. He's made more movies than I have but he's also got a real job and a house and a nice family. In spite of this he's a total movie freak. He has a huge movie collection with almost every crappy sci-fi and horror movie ever made. He knows more about contemporary horror movies than I do (although I have the edge on him when it comes to older stuff --- but then again, I was there). He and I (and his son Anthony, who also worked on Muckman) can talk endlessly about Godzilla- and Hammer-films and old AIP-movies, much to the dismay of his wife. Collaborating on Muckman was an interesting experience. The screenplay was a joint effort, to the point where it's now hard to remember who wrote what. Although I get directing credit it really was a true team effort, with Mark grabbing the camera and picking up shots himself when he had an idea. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is Mark's --- a tracking shot from behind the Muckman as it trudges through the woods at night, steam rising off its body.

 

Let's go back to the beginning of your career: What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal education on the subject?

 

I've wanted to be a film maker my entire life. I started reading about guys like Don Glut in Castle of Frankenstein and other magazines and decided I could buy a camera and make my own movies. This was before they had media classes and such in schools, when the idea of a kid making a movie was considered crazy. By the time I was out of school guys like George Romero and (even earlier) H.G. Lewis [Herschell Gordon Lewis bio - click here] had begun to establish the regional filmmaking movement. So I bought a 16mm camera and started trying to hustle up some money to make a feature.

And no, I've never had any formal training. Hell, I never graduated from High School!

 

Your first feature I believe was Mysterious Planet. How did that come into being, and how would you judge the film from today's point of view?

 

I had written various scripts and done productions drawings to try to raise money. I finally wandered into the office of an investment counselor who also fancied he had a creative side. He was intrigued by my ideas and over a very long period of time got together a handful of investors to put up a very small amount of money, and with that I shot Mysterious Planet with a handful of actors and no crew. It was essentially a home movie, shot entirely silent and all post-dubbed. It was actually done in a very similar manner to Dennis Muren's Equinox, although he had a bunch of highly skilled artists to help him out. I had just me. As a movie Mysterious Planet sucks - but in fairness to myself it's not much worse that Equinox. Maybe no worse at all.

 


You have also worked with legendary Hollywood producer Sam Sherman on his one directorial effort, Raiders of the Living Dead. You just have to say a few words about the man and the movie!

 

Sam and I never worked together. I produced a small zombie movie called Dying Day, which Sam bought and eventually transformed into Raiders of the Living Dead. We never even met until many years later when I was working at EI in New Jersey and Sam came by one day. By that time a rumor had somehow circulated that he and I were having some sort of feud. One of us (I can't remember who) said “What's this about a feud we're having?” and the other one said “I don't know, you know how these stories get started.” And that was that. We got along great. I spent a whole afternoon with Sam driving around scouting locations. It was quite pleasant.

 

A few words about some of your films (picked rather at random, I have to admit):

Galaxy?

 

I never made a movie by that title but I believe it's Battle For the Lost Planet. [Yes it is!]

It was my third film, made right after Dying Day (Raiders of the Living Dead). Making it was a nightmare. We ran into trouble which caused us to go over schedule, at which time a bunch of the actors (all except one) decided they had me by the balls and it was time to squeeze. They demanded that their pay be doubled for every additional day and that they receive their money in cash each day before they'd shoot, which meant I spent half the day running around trying to get the money which drove us further behind schedule which cost us even more money...

If a thing like that happened today I'd fire the bunch of them and rewrite the script, but I was too inexperienced at the time. In the end the cast was quite disappointed with how the film came out. It looked cheap and rushed. Gee, I wonder why?

 

A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell?

 


One of the actors I worked with in Mutant War asked me if I'd produce a film with him if he could raise the money. I said of course and we started batting around ideas. We finally settled on an old script I'd written called Dark Sun, which we later changed to The Dark Fortress. I wanted to see if I could make a fantasy film with sets and costumes and monsters for a Z budget. It turned out not to be a very good movie but I think I succeeded in pulling it off visually, to some extent anyway. Troma was interested but they dragged out negotiations forever trying to nickel-and-dime us to death. Eventually we came to an agreement and they acquired the film, which they retitled A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, tacking on a prologue to justify the title. I still get flack because the movie makes no sense as a post-nuke flick, which it was never meant to be.  I wrote a sequel (Nymphoid II: Return to Dinosaur Hell) which I pitched to Lloyd Kaufman at Troma. He seemed enthusiastic but it turned out he wanted me to raise the money myself, produce the film, and hand the finished product over to him, in return for which I would receive essentially nothing. I passed.

 

They Bite?

 

A job for hire. Bill Links, who had made some good money as one of the producers of a movie called Deadtime Stories, wanted me make him a movie about “fish monsters and tits”. When he read the script he complained “You've turned it into a comedy!” I said “Wait a second, you ask for a movie about 'fish monsters and tits' and you expected me to take it seriously?”  

His model had been Humanoids From The Deep, which is altogether too nasty a movie for my tastes. The movie got made, but what should have been a two week shoot turned into a total mess, which almost always happens when investors want to get involved as active producers. You spend half your time trying to get the movie made and the other half doing damage control, trying to deal with the problems your “producer” is creating. In this case it was worse than usual, A quick example: on the very first day of shooting we were all packed and ready to head off for a nine a.m. call at our first location, when I was informed the “producer” wanted to talk to me first. It was important and we weren't to leave before speaking to him. Problem was he was still in bed where he remained until noon. He finally wandered out and I asked him what was so important we had to miss our first shoot. He shrugged and said “I just wanted to know what was up.” That was the very beginning of the very first day! And it got worse from there.

 


Drainiac!?

 

I'd been mulling around ideas for how to shoot a feature film ultra-cheap (this was just before video became a viable format, which cut production costs down to almost nothing). I came up with a figure of $10,000 for a shot-on-film feature. I happened to mention that to a friend one night, going over how I'd keep the cost down, and he said “Okay, I'm in.” I said “What do you mean, you're in?” - “I'll put up the money to make the movie.” I don't know whether he thought I was pitching to him or what, but suddenly I had the cash so I started writing the script. I liked the title Drainiac! and came up with the idea of a girl being sucked down the drain after watching one of my young nephews panic in the bathtub as he watched the water go down and somehow thought he was going to be taken away with it. A lot of people have called the bathtub scene in Drainiac! “gratuitous,” but it was actually the inspiration for the whole movie. Then again most people who use words like “gratuitous” don't actually know what they mean anyway.

 

Psyclops?

 


Another ultra-cheapie, this time funded by an actress from Drainiac! who'd sold some property and had a little money to invest. We had camera problems that necessitated reshoots and drove us over budget. The post was handled by a “studio” that screwed it up totally then brokered a distribution deal that seemed successful but returned a negligible amount of money. I had to sue just to try to find out what the movie made, but after a year of  being stonewalled I was finally told that the film had flopped but somehow all the financial records had mysteriously disappeared. What a business!

 


Shock-O-Rama?

 

Not a bad movie, but not nearly as good as it should have been. Let me put it this way: If you've seen the commercially released DVD you haven't really seen the movie at all. The DVD master was so washed out and nearly inaudible that it's painful to sit through. I saw a screener at a Fango-convention in Chicago that actually looked like a real movie, but no one else will ever see it the way it's supposed to look.

 

Bacterium?

 


This was aimed at the SyFy network although I don't think it was ever pitched to them. Supposedly they like movies about “recognizable” monsters, everyday animals that have somehow taken on monster form, so I gave 'em giant bacteria. Everyone compares Bacterium to The Blob but it's real inspiration was Island of Terror (Night of the Silicates). Some people think this is my best movie, but I'm not one of them. It is, however, the only EI movie that ever came in under budget, thanks to our producer Christina Christodoulopoulos.

 

Any other films of yours you'd like to talk about? Any future projects?

 

Right now I'm working on a semi Lovecraft movie tentatively called Nightmare House. It's ready to shoot but we're having trouble casting. We always have trouble casting. I need to move to California.

 

You have become known for your rather wonderful old school special effects. Would you like to talk about your approach to special effects work for a bit?

 

Some French magazine called me “the last master of stop-motion effects”. I don't know about the “master” part but I seem to be the last hold-out. The reason is simple: I like physically making the creatures. I like sculpting, I like building models. It's very satisfying and it's also given me something of a hook, a gimmick I can be known for, which I guess is a pretty useful thing.

 

Special effects wizards who have influenced you?

 

O'Brien and Harryhausen, of course, and Jim Danforth. Kong may have been the biggest single influence in my life. George Pal, if you include him among effects artists (which I think you can legitimately do) and probably John Fulton. One artist who had a big influence on the way I actually work (which is to say fast and cheap) was Les Bowie.

 

Directors who inspire you?

 

Terence Fisher [Terence Fisher bio - click here]. John Huston. Maybe a little Orson Wells. Boy, those are pretty distinguished role models for a guy who makes cheap little monster movies! Maybe the Coen Brothers just a little. A lot of directors whose work I really enjoy, like Woody Allen, have very little influence on my own work. Love to watch their movies, wouldn't want to make 'em.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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Oh, lots. King Kong, as I said. All the old Universal horrors and the Hammer films. The Thing ('51), The Day the Earth Stood Still, all of the genre classics. And a bunch of non-horror/sci-fi movies too: Citizen Kane, The Man in the White Suit, Local Hero, The Bank Dick, all kinds of stuff. I have pretty eclectic tastes.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

I don't really hate many films. One that comes to mind is As Good as It Gets, which is contemptible. And Cameron's Titanic, a bloated, grandiose soap opera which I probably wouldn't hate so much if everyone else didn't love it. Compared to A Night to Remember it looks like the overstuffed turd it is.

 

Your website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

http://www.facebook.com/brettpiperofficial

http://www.brettpiper.com/

Tobias Piwek handles all that. He does a great job. If people actually seem to have some idea who I am lately he's the guy to thank or blame!

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Nah.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

Thanks for your interest! It's nice to know that somebody actually enjoys these things.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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