Recently I had the pleasure of stumbling onto the films of independent filmmaker Richard Griffin. A true maverick with a style distinctly his own, his films need to be seen to be believed. Imagine if John Waters directed horror flicks and you’re almost there. Almost. Richard has graciously accepted my request to be tossed on the grill of my blog. So welcome to the subversive, insane, blasphemous, demented, delirious, gory, yet undeniably funny universe(s) of Richard Griffin!
SRW: Thanks for taking time out, Richard. Let’s start at the beginning. After Titus Andronicus (and I tried to watch it, I did! So…I didn’t.), your first film was Feeding the Masses from 2004. You were off to a good start with this zombie tale. Yet you were already developing your trademark satirical chops with the advertising, government propaganda films and newscast bits. Does the satire come naturally? Did you begin making films thinking “I’m gonna make some comedies?”
RG: Well, I find humor in just about everything. No matter how horrible the situation is, there’s humor. I think some of this might also be a reaction to what was happening with horror at the time. The really grim, gritty SAW type horror films. I just really couldn’t get into them, ya know? I was much more of a Vincent Price / Roger Corman fan. I like my horror to have a sense of fun.
SRW: Good on you, mate! Me, too. The movie owes a debt to George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, particularly the opening news station sequence. Are you a Romero fan?
RG: His early stuff, yeah. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and especially Martin. I learned to edit by watching and studying his early films.
SRW: (I know, right? What happened to his later films?) Even though there are laughs in the film, you still take time out for character development. I think that’s important, probably even more so in comedies. The hero’s monologue where he opens up about his fear of death is particularly well done.
RG: Yeah, that’s a chilling moment. That’s was what sold me on Trent Haaga’s screenplay. That entire moment is so well written, and Billy Garberina did a masterful job delivering it.
SRW: Another Richard Griffin theme is established early: distrust of government. Richard, are you on any watch-lists we should know about?
RG: Ha! No. I think I have a healthy distrust, but I’m not cynical. I think all of this can actually work out. I’m a cranky optimist.
SRW: Raving Maniacs from 2005 was your next film. Again a zombie flick, but this one is more daring, venturing into extremely gory terrain and possibly off-putting subject matter (zombie incest anyone?). Truth time, Richard, do you derive pleasure in disturbing viewers?
RG: Nah, I think at this point we as artists cannot shock anyone with anything. I just put stuff in my movies to amuse me. If you as an audience member enjoys it, great. If not, great. I make films for myself first, and everyone else second.
SRW: Maniacs plays as a portrait of the hedonistic lifestyle of drug-culture youth with “zombiefication” a metaphor for the disastrous result of drug addiction. Or am I reading wayyy too much into your horror film?
RG: If there is a “message” to Raving Maniacs, it was more about the legal drugs that people are consuming like candy these days. There’s a scene early on in the film where our protagonists are driving to the rave, and each one is describing what type of anti-depressant they’re currently taking.
SRW: Where’d the chapter titles come from? They begin as a sort of economics lesson (regarding the drug dealers), then segue into a sort of AAA manifesto (for the victims/users).
RG: That was co-writer Trent Haaga’s idea! I thought it was very clever, so I kept it in the movie.
SRW: Your films are always GLBT friendly (it’s no secret you’re openly gay), yet no group is safe from your satirical arrows. Do you think it’s important for the gay community to be represented in your films? I only ask because Hollywood is “trying” to be more openly representative (yet still failing with some awful characterization), yet I don’t recall seeing too many gay characters in lower budgeted films.
RG: Well, yeah. I’ve been criticized in some circles for how I portray gay characters. There was a period during the 90s if you didn’t make your gay characters basically perfect in every way, then you were somehow a threat to the movement. And recently I directed a short film titled CRASH SITE, that really had people up in arms with how gays were portrayed. I honestly don’t get it, but then again I’ve always been able to laugh at myself, and sometimes it’s easy to see some folks can’t. I always try to have my gay characters not be either complete scumbags or saint-like heroes, but you can’t please everyone.
SRW: You go, Richard. In 2005, you unleashed Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon. What can I say about this flick? As it turns out, not much for a change. It is what it is and it is a funny, fun throw-back to the drive-in schlock of the ‘50’s (albeit with modern gore and grotesque characters). Defend yourself!
RG: I love that cracked out flick! It’s just pure bubblegum fun. It’s a real EC comics type film, and if you put your brain under your seat for 85 minutes, you’ll love the ride!
SRW: I liked the cool comic book styled opening credits. In fact, Richard, most of your films have stylish credit sequences, usually played over some good rockabilly. Who’s responsible for the credits?
RG: Typically myself, but on occasion I hand them over to someone like my CGI guru John Dusek.
SRW: It was nice you put the creature (as goofy as it was) up front from the beginning. Most movies of this ilk keep “the money shot” in hiding until the end of the film. Directorial or script decision?
RG: It was a great looking creature, and the bulk of our
budget went towards it! So if you got it, flaunt it!
SRW: There’s a lot of Redneck Anger(!) in the film. I’m gonna add rednecks alongside the government on your enemy list, Richard. We’ll see how the rest of the films tally up.
RG: No, I love redneck humor. Seriously, I have a soft spot in my heart for what my producer calls “Hee-Haw Humor”.
SRW: I suppose now’s a good as time as any to mention your long-time producing (sometimes writing) partner Ted Marr. Tell us about Ted.
RG: He’s my husband, and very much the Yin to my Yang. He’s extremely creative, hyper intelligent, and just an all around awesome person. We love working together, and we’ve had a great time, especially on the movies we co-wrote together like NUN OF THAT and SPLATTER DISCO.
SRW: Oh, before we move on…did the budget run out on Hillbilly, hence the economical comic book panel car crash?
RG: Well, let’s just say the budget didn’t “run out”. More that there wasn’t really a budget. To make matters worse, we had to fire three of the lead actors two days into shooting, so the reshoots of their scenes ate up what tiny bit of budget we might have allocated to shoot a car crash!
SRW: You followed up with Pretty Dead Things in 2006. This time it’s your take on vampire flicks. Do you plan on covering the entire supernatural gamut of creatures eventually? Furthermore, do you intend on sticking to horror comedies?
RG: I’ve completely left the horror genre. Recently I’ve been directing sci-fi (Future Justice), romantic comedies, and d!action films. I figured I had a good run in the horror genre, and now I really want to branch out.
SRW: Noooo! You're so fun at the horror/comedy genre, Richard! But I kinda get it. Horror tends to burn "artists" out and no one seems to really care about my horror novels. Dead Things begins on a surreal, almost “Lynchian (sorry, I used that term, but it’s easily identifiable even if it is lazy writing)” note. Something’s creepy about the hotel. And the clerk’s a quirky hoot. I imagine you pay attention to a lot of the everyday weirdness around you. Safe to say?
RG: I think if you’re a director, you have to pay attention to the world around you. And yeah, the world is a weird place, especially if you’re willing to look at it a certain way. I have a certain outlook on the world I like to try to put into all my movies, and I hope it’s always rather positive.
SRW: So, we have an evil pizza boy, porn star vampires, hypocritical religious and political leaders, homophobes and a vampire who gets beheaded (yet still finishes the film)! How much of this is made up on the fly and how much is scripted? Is that the typical way you work?
RG: That film, like all my other films, was extremely tightly scripted. We do not improv.
SRW: Wow. Kinda surprises me, since the films are so funny. Splatter Disco from 2007 came next. At first I thought the film was going for a cool ‘70’s/’80’s slasher vibe. Than I was shocked when I realized it was a musical! (Granted I won’t be, um, buying the soundtrack or anything, but I did enjoy the “Let’s Do It” number. Oh! And the rockabilly band was smoking!). Was this intended to be a musical from the beginning?
RG: Yep! And that’s why I never thought POP Cinema would give us the money to make the film! I sent them the script, and I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll have the Winter off from filmmaking, because they’ll never say yes to this.”, and lo and behold… they loved it to the point where they gave us more money to hire name actors! Miracles will never cease!
SRW: Readers, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a musical “Furry” number. Drawn from experience, Richard? Or did you want to expose the seedy, furry underbelly of the Furry subculture?
RG: When Ted and I were writing the screenplay, I did a Google search for “Harmless Kinks”. And furries came up. I had zero idea what the hell that was about. So much so, in fact, that I was criticized by some members of the Furry Community because in Splatter Disco they’re actually what are called Plushies! Ah, well!
SRW: LOL! I, too, wrote about the "Furry" sub-culture." The great Ken Foree (horror fans know him) puts in a welcome appearance, lending some gravitas to the proceedings. He even has a semi-touching (for a Griffin joint) scene with his son. Was the part written with him in mind?
RG: Not in the slightest. When POP Cinema read the screenplay, they really dug it so they raised the budget high enough for me to hire some name actors. One of the name actors they suggested was Ken, and I didn’t think in a million years we’d be able to hire him.
SRW: Another Griffin movie, another angry mob rallying against what they consider indecent. (I get enough of that in real life living in Kansas). This time the mob sets their sights on a “decadent” and kinky disco. What would Richard Griffin rally against?
RG: Stupidity and the continued infantilization of our culture.
SRW: Necroville was co-directed with Billy Garberina. How did that come about? And how do two directors work alongside one another? Will you be doing it again?
RG: Originally I was supposed to only be the director of photography and camera operator on Necroville, and Billy was starring, directing and producing. After three or four days of the 18 day shoot, he got really run down. I asked if he would like me to lend a hand in the directing duties, and he said yes. The entire experience of making that movie was just a sheer joy. The hours were long, the heat was pretty intense at moments, but overall it was one of the highlights of my career. Being a New England native, just being able to spend time out in the New Mexico desert was a real wonder for the senses.
As for if I’ll ever co-direct another movie, I haven’t given it much thought in the 10 years since Necroville, but if a project comes up that I think would be fun to collaborate with someone, I’d be willing to give it another shot.
SRW: Necroville is a return to zombies with a pretty fresh take, I think. Zombies are seen almost as a nuisance to be dealt with; no fear from the humans, no panicking. I suppose after awhile that would be the next logical step in a zombie apocalypse. Do you really see humanity capable of accepting zombies as a nuisance akin to dog droppings on the sidewalk?
RG: One of the best, and also worst, abilities of human beings is our strength at adapting to any situation. It’s great in some respects, because we don’t easily crumble under adversity, but it also means we tend to ignore problems as well.
SRW: Our slacker heroes are hired by “Zom-B-Gone,” a funny concept, where they become zombie exterminators (who also deal with loud college parties). A slacker workplace comedy, it’s sort of like Office Space. Only with zombies. And cheaper and gorier. Do you come up with a single idea/concept first? Or several scenes to wrap a story around?
RG: I had nothing to do with the screenplay. That was written by Billy and Adam Jarmon Brown. It was already in place when I was signed on to DP the movie. I thought it was delightful, and was amazed at how much Billy was able to pull off with the small budget he had to work with. If the script said there would be 100 zombies attacking a van, then on the day of the shoot there was 100 zombies attacking a van! Amazing!
SRW: The hero’s girlfriend is an awful, high-maintenance terror, the true villain of the film. Did you set out to make her the most heinous character in your filmography?
RG: Once again, that was all Billy’s doing. He had a fantastic actor in that role, and they had the perfect chemistry.
SRW: There’re many memorable sequences: the Girl Scout troop vying for a merit badge, vampire death by holy water urination, big co-worker Paul sawing through a zombie horde (on his day off to boot!). But I really liked the entire piano dropping onto a vampire sequence. While a salute to cartoons, it’s also filmed almost like a silent movie sequence. Intentional? Or have I got too much spare time?
RG: I’m a HUGE fan of Warner Brother’s cartoons, especially those directed by Chuck Jones, so there’s always that element in everything I do. Plus, I think movies should be visual. The less dialogue the better.
SRW: I love Chuck Jones, too. Up next you tackle the seedy Grindhouse, revenge, exploitation subgenre with Nun of That, which I believe is your most accomplished film to date. Wonderfully, subversively funny. The acting’s better, the fight scenes more realistic, everything really comes together on this film. Is this due to on-the-job training? Or did you have a larger budget to play with?
RG: It was a screenplay everyone was passionate about. It wasn’t just another job. The concept I came up with of this secret organization of crime-fighting nuns really sparked a lot of people’s imaginations, and with the help of my co-writer Ted Marr, we were able to craft a script that people really wanted to work on, and give 110 percent. That entire production was blessed. I had a very long shooting schedule, so I could craft scenes exactly like I wanted them, and the cast was very talented and fearless.
SRW: I racked my (admittedly small) brain trying to figure out when the flick’s supposed to take place. On one hand, you have the big lapelled, big facial-haired goon mobsters straight out of the early ‘70’s; then later, an 80’s-styled mohawked punk shows up. Some of the characters look current. Help! When? Or does it really matter?
RG: It’s in it’s own universe. Best not to get hung up on details. But I will say that punk rockers are more of a 70s thing than an 80s thing. So, if I HAD to give an answer, the movie takes place around 1978.
SRW: The opening sequence contains one of the most indelible images from all of your films: a fully dressed nun swinging on a stripper pole, spraying machine gun bullets and lobbing grenades at evil mobsters in the audience. Sublime. Did the entire flick spring from this image?
RG: Nope! The entire movie sprung from the idea of a kick-ass nun. And the thing is, we were offered a rather large budget to make the movie from a production company, but they wanted it played straight. I turned them down because, how the hell do you make a movie about a crime-fighting nun and NOT make it funny? The very idea is so insane, so off-the-wall, the only way to make it work is through satire.
SRW: Great call. Jesus’ hilarious song and dance routine is a riot (much better than anything in Splatter Disco). Do you ever meet viewers whose noses get tweaked by your flicks? Or does that audience pretty much just stay away?
RG: The thing is… about NUN OF THAT… we thought it was going to offend religious folks, especially Catholics, but at the end of the day .. they loved it! Especially the older Catholics who remember things before Vatican II. You know, all the “Can’t eat meat on Friday” jokes! Listen, here’s the truth… I believe in God with all my heart. And when Ted and I wrote the screenplay my main thing was that God was off limits when it came to the humor. My goal wasn’t to offend with the movie, but to make people laugh. And, thankfully, that seemed to be the case. As satirical as my movies are, they’re not mean spirited. It’s all done with a good sense of fun.
SRW: I agree and good on you, Richard. I have many favorite sequences in this flick, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the uproarious nun bar called “Bar Nun.” Here, nuns are breaking bottles, hunkering down in fights, pretty much nuns gone wild. Greatness on a budget. Did you have any actresses developing cold feet for portraying a nun in this manner (you know, watching the sky for lightning bolts and stuff)?
RG: Everyone involved with the movie attacked their roles 100 percent. Nobody was shy about the stuff. As I said before, the idea was so original for the movie… that all the talent were completely game. It was a magical time making that movie.
SRW: Finally…by this time, I’m recognizing quite a few of your stable of recurring actors (some better than others; no names mentioned). But…why is the mobster momma portrayed by a guy in drag?
RG: I had worked with Rich Tretheway on another movie, and I was absolutely amazed at how talented he is. When it came time to cast Mamma Rizzo, he was just the perfect choice. And the great thing about Rich is, he didn’t play the role as a man in a dress. He didn’t play it as a goof. He played her like she was a real woman. It was rather astonishing to watch. When you’ve made as many movies as I have, you find yourself wanting to take major risks, and this one paid off in spades.
SRW: Okay...time to go to bed. I'm long-winded. So is Richard. Tune in next week for the stunning, shocking, mind-blowing conclusion to the interview! Same bat-time, same bat channel...