Friday, March 1, 2019

Brett Piper--Movie-Making Maverick

Meet Brett Piper, legendary (well, at least in my “circles”) Renaissance man of the exploitation/genre world of independent film-making. 
No, this isn't Brett Piper, but it is one of his offspring.

The guy’s been cranking ‘em out for about forty years and not only does he write and direct all of his films, he does the special effects as well (including a lotta painstaking stop-motion work). Brett was kind (brave) enough to show up for an interview. Let’s grill!
Stuart R. West: Hey, Brett, thanks for agreeing to be my guest.

Brett Piper: It's an honor and a pleasure. 

SRW: Before we break down your filmography, I’d like to ask some general questions. I assume you’re not making killer bank by going the independent film-making route, but you’ve been at it since the ‘80’s. I know stop-motion animation can’t be easy (I remember an interview where you said a seven second sequence took days and days of hard work). Why do it?

BP: Oh, come on --- why do painters paint? Why does a pianist play the piano? Why does the President make an ass of himself? Because it's what they do!

SRW: Well, thanks for keeping stop-motion animation alive (and in total agreement, particularly regarding the president). You’re one of the few who dabble in this painstaking artform in this era of soulless CGI. I’m sure your influences are who fans would suspect: Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jiri Barta, Ladislav Starevicz, Art Clokey (Bert I. Gordon?). Do any of the young artsy-fartsy stop-motion animators trip your trigger?
BP: I'm afraid I'd be hard pressed to name one. I sometimes see stuff on line I like. A lot of people like to experiment with the technique, which is great. As it becomes less commercially viable there seem to be more and more people doing it. But I hate Lego animation. Don't ask me why. It just seems like the crappiest level of the art form. Now I hate myself for saying that because it sounds so elitist, but what the hell. We all have to have our standards. 

SRW: One thing I really like about your films is you always have a good sense of humor at play in them. Does this start with your scripts? Is it an organic process with the actors? Is there room for improvisation? Do you intend to make them funny or does it just happen (kinda what goes on with my books)?

BP: I don't think I can make a movie that doesn't take at least a slightly humorous approach. All the best movies contain humor. King Kong has jokes, so does Citizen Kane. And the types of movies I make shouldn't take themselves too seriously anyway. Honestly, if someone asked me for the one piece of advice I would give to make the world a better place (like anyone's going to ask me that) I'd say “Lighten up!” People take themselves too damn seriously. Life is tragic enough without taking any more of the fun out of it. I'm not sure I'm answering your question. Let's just say that Kong and Harryhausen may have been my biggest inspiration, but the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges and The Goon Show, among many others, are right up there too. As for improvisation, I like to encourage it up to a point, but some actors, just a few, have taken that as a license to argue over every scene. You can't be doing that on a five day shoot. 
SRW: Alright! Let’s jump into the Way-Back Machine and travel back to 1982 for Mysterious Planet, your first film. You started out with huge ambitions on a clearly low budget. It’s kinda bold to make a galaxy-hopping, science-fiction saga, but you pulled it off (even if the stop-motion giant 2-headed snail is a better thespian than the human actors). In this film, you’re using animation, matte paintings (there’s a really cool skull mountain), effective miniatures, the list goes on. But I gotta be honest, Brett, the script seems to be formed around the special effects. So, it’s that age-old question, what came first? The script or the special effects?

BP: Mysterious Island. I wanted to make a movie like that but with spaceships. And yes, it was written around effects set pieces (as were Harryhausen's movies). I got into movie making so I could build monsters and bring them to life on screen. 
SRW: You brought things back down to earth for your next film, Dying Day. I was shocked to find out I even had a copy of this hard-to-find film on an extra of the (ludicrous) film Raiders of the Living Dead. The history behind this film is a long and convoluted one, so I’m tasking you with summing it up succinctly and interestingly for my readers. Ready? Go!

BP: I thought it might be easier to sell a package of films than to sell them one by one so I wrote six scripts, intending to shoot them back to back. Some were pretty elaborate (a giant monster movie, another space opera) and some were simpler (werewolf, zombies).  The zombie story was the simplest so I started with that. When it was finished I pitched it to a number of companies including Sam Sherman's Independent International. They liked it, haggled over money, and finally bought it. Then they watched the whole thing and found out it was only something like an hour long. They complained, I shot new footage, which didn't matter anyway because they only used my movie for stock footage in making Raiders of the Living Dead. They kept telling me how thrilled I was going to be when I saw it. I caught it for the first time on USA Network's “Saturday Nightmares”. These are the times you have to remind yourself not to take life too seriously. My sister watched it also and later said to me, “When you made that movie, didn't it have a plot?” The real joke it that when Variety ran a mini-review of the movie the only  parts they liked were the bits of my original footage that were used. Boffo. 

SRW: For what it’s worth, I liked it better than Raiders. Although extremely dark in places and hard to see (hey, I know it’s an unfinished film), and a little hard to follow (thank God for the noiresque narration), there are some effective horror set-pieces. After making Mysterious Planet, were you just itching to do something a little less ambitious? How do you feel about Dying Day now?

BP: I haven't see it since I finished it (nor would I care to). I'm sure it's crap, although it was originally well shot crap. I would guess that the version you saw was a bad transfer from the work print. Look for the splices! 
SRW: Well, anything you learned (or didn’t) from Mysterious Planet didn’t take, because you’re at it again with 1986’s Galaxy! In addition to space travel, planet hopping, wild aliens, you’ve also tossed in the end of the world. What was the budget for this nuttily ambitious film?

BP: About $60,000, a good deal more than Dying Day had cost. And it's original title was Battle for the Lost Planet. I don't know where Galaxy came from. 

SRW: Let’s chat about your use of recurring actors. The first one I noticed is Matt Mitler, who plays unreliable narrator/hero Harry Trent. Is it easier to work with actors you’re familiar with? Do you write to their strengths? (I mean it can’t be a coincidence that this same actor, playing the same character in your next movie, is so cool, he wears his sunglasses indoors; there oughta be a law).

BP: It depends. Sometimes I write parts for specific performers which are then played by other people entirely. The lead in They Bite was written for Deborah Quayle, who had starred in Mutant War. She turned it down (repeatedly) because it was a non-union movie and she didn't want to get in trouble with SAG.  I don't think she made another  movie for twenty years. The lead in Screaming Dead was written for Bevin McGraw from Arachnia, a very talented actress and one of the few bright spots in the making of that piece of crap. She  loved the script at first then changed her mind because she thought making a movie for EI/Pop Cinema would type her as a porn actress which, I think she later realized, was pretty stupid.  Anyway, I sometimes write for people I want to work with again, mostly because casting is the hardest part of making these movies. I'm not working in California where you get all the actors you need at any restaurant. Even casting in NYC is no picnic. The ratio of acceptable actors to applicants is like a hundred to one. Literally.  Once I find actors I'm happy with I tend to stick with them. 

SRW: Okay, while your hero is stranded in space for years, he makes a “pillow woman.” I’m saying it here first, “Wilson” from Cast Away was pilfered from your film. 

BP: Yeah, like they're big fans of my work...

SRW: Again, there are many great effects from the pig-faced aliens to the mutant beasties to the destruction of earth, but what stands out for me are the little things. I love the ending where the blow-hard hero is giving a “rah-rah” speech and his allies walk away. Scripted? Or improvised?

BP: Scripted.

SRW: 1986 saw Galaxy’s sequel: Mutant War. Was Galaxy financially successful enough to warrant a sequel or was this a purely creative decision?

BP: Not a creative decision at all. Lost Planet/Galaxy was sold to some goniff who wanted me to make another one for him but kept shooting down all my ideas. I finally realized what he really wanted was the same movie all over again so I wrote a sequel and Harry Trent flew again. 
SRW: Again, Harry Trent’s up to his neck in bad-boy/good-guy planet-hopping shenanigans (and take off the damn sunglasses already! You’re indoors. Honestly!). And, hey! There’s infamous character actor Cameron Mitchell (who shows up at the 1:04 mark only to exit a few minutes later). I’ve read Cam was hard to get along with in the later days. Was his “video box marquee value” worth it?
BP: He shows up at the beginning? Probably to sucker all those Cameron Mitchell fans who rented the movie just for him. The movie was drastically recut after I handed it over so I wouldn't know. Mitchell was a pussycat. I enjoyed working with a him great deal, even if he was only there two days. By the end of the first day we were swapping old time show business anecdotes like we'd worked together all our lives. Later, though, in an interview with Fangoria he denied any memory of the movie. I fired off a letter saying “Cameron Mitchell said ours was the worst location he'd seen in all his years in the business --- you'd think he'd remember that!”
SRW: Okay, Brett, here’s where I noticed the first instance of one of your recurring themes: the enhanced eyeball. (I know, weird, right?) There’s a cyborg bad guy and a battle wagon with eyeballs! You revisit this theme quite a bit. Um, some past trauma? Or just cool effects?

BP: What? A battle wagon with eyeballs? I have no idea. And wasn't the cyborg an alien mercenary and not really a villain? Anyway, the movie I'm working on now has another bug eyed guy, so maybe you're on to something. 
SRW: 1990 was a big year for you as we finally (finally!) leave what I like to call your Post Apocalyptic era. But you’re up for destroying the world one last time with A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell. Yikes, that’s some title. But then when I found out who released it, it was no surprise. Boom! You were Tromatized! I’ve read this was your most popular film. I’ve gotta ask…was that the original title? Or did Lloyd Kauffman (notorious cheapskate and bad taste monger behind Troma Studios) force that on you? Was there any other interference?

BP: The original title was The Dark Fortress, and it took place on another planet, not a post apocalyptic Earth. Lloyd had nothing to do with the making of the movie. He bought the finished movie and re-titled it Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell. A great title. I laughed my ass off. 

SRW: Was your experience with Troma a good one? Educational?

BP: Making movies is always educational. Mostly you learn about things you never want to go through again. Although I wrote a sequel to Nymphoid which I pitched to Troma. Lloyd liked it, and all he wanted me to do was raise the money, produce the film myself, and then hand it over to him. I politely declined. He got pissed, thinking that I'd reneged on a deal, even though we never had a deal. In time he got over it. In fact, when I saw him again at a convention in New Jersey he'd gotten over it so well I don't think he even remembered me. 

SRW: I noticed a matte painting in the film that bears a suspicious resemblance to Troma’s signature logo/opening of an orange-hued skyline. Do I need to get my eyes checked?

BP: I have no idea. It rings no bells.

SRW: Moving along to one of my favorite of your films, 1996’s They Bite. Everything seemed to gel here: you’d created characters I actually liked and cared about; the comedy’s very funny; there’s good chemistry between the decidedly offbeat leads (a porn director with artistic ambitions and a scrappy, down-on-her-luck ichthyologist); the greatest wet t-shirt contest scene ever disrupted by a monster; and naturally, great effects. Did you decide to change things up a bit? The overall tone seems more playful than before.
BP: Bill Links wanted me to make him a movie with “fish monsters and tits”. Apparently he believed such a combination couldn't fail. His template was Humanoids From The Deep, which was kind of a nasty picture, but the script I sent him was something else entirely. “It's a comedy!” he said. “Bill,” I said, “it's a movie with fish monsters and tits. How serious did you expect me to make it?”

SRW: Which brings us to the “white elephant” in the room. Of course I’m talking about the legendary thespian, Ron Jeremy. I don’t even want to know how he ended up in your movie. No, wait, scratch that, I DO want to know…

BP: The white, hairy elephant with the enormous trunk. Links hired him. I guess they were pals and Links thought the Jeremy name would help sell the movie. He was a pretty talented performer and a monumental pain in the ass. 
SRW: While not as ambitious plot-wise as your Post-Apocalyptic cycle, the movie still has a lot of ambition. It serves as a fun exploitation/monster flick, but is also a loving pastiche of the ‘50’s wave of sci-fi films, from the music to the question mark ending to the famous quote, “Keep watching the skies.” And I’d be remiss without mentioning the hilarious, brilliant black and white monster movie trailer dropped into the film as a character’s nightmare. One of my favorite things you’ve done. 

BP: Invasion of the Fish F@#$ers. That was almost fun. If I'm not mistaken we shot that mostly in one night with strippers Links had shanghaied from a nearby club. He brought them by one night with absolutely no warning. We just sort of winged it.  The crappy looking monster suits in that segment were supposed to be the real monsters in the movie, made by a guy in upstate New York who'd worked on one of the Toxic Avenger movies. The suits were so bad they were falling apart as we took them out of the box. I actually had to make them look better before we could use them as our crappy suits. 

SRW: There’s also a lot of satire in the film. You take jabs at porn, filmmaking, censorship, and a very meddlesome producer. Gotta ask…was he based on someone from your past experiences?

BP: No, he was based on someone from our then current experience. 

SRW: Here we enter the second phase of your career, the Voyeuristic/Eyeball Era! We start with Draniac (2000), a transitional film. There’s a marked shift in tone. The settings become more insular and not as varied and the stories generally rely on one big idea instead of a lot of them. Basically, you’ve decided to stay on earth for a while. Was this for budgetary reasons or had your interests changed?

BP: Mostly budgetary reasons. Drainiac was, after Mysterious Planet, my cheapest movie to date, and it was made ten or more years later.  
SRW: I’d also noticed a new influence creeping (see what I did there?) into your work: H.P. Lovecraft. (Well, the “Miskatonic Road” name-drop was kinda a giveaway). I see more Lovecraft horror than science-fiction in this set of films.

BP: Probably. Drainiac and The Dark Sleep are my only overtly Lovecraftian films, although contrary to what it says on the box Dark Sleep was not “based on”Lovecraft's work. 

SRW: Not to say Draniac’s without humor. There’s still plenty of that in the plumber exorcist, the annoying Jerry Lewis character, and other things. The exorcism’s an undisputed highlight. There’s an invigorating anything goes sense to the scene. Was Hammer Film’s The Devil Rides Out an influence? Was the film structured around that sequence? Do you sometimes rush through dialogue scenes to get to the fun stuff?

BP: Less Hammer films, more Hong Kong ghost stories. In fact a friend of mine brought her fiance, who was from Hong Kong, to see part of the movie and he picked up on the Chinese influence immediately, which was kind of gratifying.  And the scene the movie was structured around was actually the girl in the bath tub, which makes it one of the least gratuitous nude scenes in movie history, contrary to what some might say.
SRW: From 2002 comes Psyclops, where you’re really embracing your voyeuristic/eyeball theme. This movie’s about the ultimate voyeur, a (semi) mad scientist who fuses with an otherworldly video camera. Lotsa influences here from Brian DePalma’s voyeuristic prowling camera to Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window). A character even quotes Hitchcock. Lovecraft again, maybe even a little Cronenberg. But I wonder if the film’s not a comment on the intrusive nature of so-called “reality” TV. Or is it, just, you know, an icky, gooey, messy horror film?

BP: It was an attempt to save some bucks by shooting part of the movie on video! Not a very successful attempt, I might add. 

SRW: Heh, yeah, not one of my favorites. Alright, we’re introduced to another of your go-to actor guys (five films in a row!), Rob Monkiewicz. Through the films, it’s interesting to watch Rob’s evolution as an actor. Here, he’s clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, playing against type as a pseudo-nerd tucked into a button-down shirt and spectacles, when he’s clearly a body-building slab.

BP: True. After Psyclops I'd write parts that fit better with Rob's persona. He was a pleasure to work with and I'd still be using him if he hadn't given up on all this nonsense. 

SRW: Arachnia (2003) is a movie my wife will never watch. I seem to recall your having said that it’s easier to animate bugs than fictional creatures. Is that why you use so many in this run of films?

BP: It's easier and more fun and they make great monsters. Just ask your wife!
SRW: After the darker Psyclops, the humor in Arachnia is very much in evidence again. In fact, it seems like it’s nearly a spoof as you check off all requisite items from the exploitation/horror checklist: plane crash; a cabin in the woods; old timer with shotgun; stuffy scientist; bimbos; gratuitous bathtub scene; Skinemax saxophone; horny comic relief guy (HIM I could live without.) Script by checklist?

BP: Yep. It very much was a deliberate spoof, an homage if you will to old fashioned drive-in movies. 

SRW: Rob’s back and a little more confident. First, he’s shed his glasses. Second, he’s freely more macho. Did you and Rob actually “work out a character” or did he just take screen direction? How do you prefer to handle actors?

BP: Yes, as I said I was writing for a known quantity now. I like to hire actors I don't need to direct. This doesn't happen very often but when it does it's a pleasure. Donna Frotscher from They Bite is a perfect example. The only directions I had to give her were things like “You stand here” or “You come in on his line.” Other than that she was perfect. As John Huston said,  95% of  direction is casting the right actors. Otherwise my motto is let 'em do whatever they want as long as it fits in the movie. It makes the actors happy and it saves me a lot of grief.  Once in a while an actor will ask me why they're not getting more direction. My answer is “You're doing fine, I'll let you know if there's a problem.”

SRW: Screaming Dead from 2003 introduces (inexplicably) popular softcore porno actress, Misty Mundae, to your films. How was she to get along with?

BP: At first she seemed pleased to finally be in a “real” movie. We developed a bit of a rapport. But I don't think she was happy with her place in the cinematic universe, and her relationship with the studio was deteriorating, so although we got along fine on Screaming Dead things became increasingly difficult on the successive movies. 
SRW: The film’s clearly about exploitation as art (and is certainly one of your kinkier movies). The artist in question here is a sleazy photographer taking pictures of models in a purportedly haunted building. The theme is played upon again and again, cleverly encapsulated when we see a reflection of the artist’s subject in his eye. Do you consider yourself, as a filmmaker, the ultimate voyeur? Or is that a title best saved for we, your audience?

BP: All movies are voyeuristic by nature, aren't they? But that's not really what Screaming Dead was all about.

SRW: Okay, I missed that one. Brett, tell me…all lofty pretensions aside, is this just a sexploitation riff on The Haunting of Hill House?

BP: Nope. It was a dig at some of the slimeballs I've met in this business.  It was about the way some aspiring actresses will allow themselves to be abused and sometimes degraded by so-called “artists”, frequently by people who are less interested in making a movie than in playing domination games with naive girls. I've seen those kinds of games being played and they pissed me off.  Remember the scene in the movie where Rob says to the photographer “For fifty bucks I could have your legs broken, but in your case I'd rather do it myself?” That was me. I said that to another “director” who was pulling that kind of stuff with some actresses I knew.

SRW: Good on you!

Bite Me! (2004) is a lot of fun. It starts frenetically with many different couples in varying scenarios and never lets up. (I’d say it’s my favorite right up there with They Bite.) You simply can’t go wrong with a plot detailing strippers fighting killer bugs. Plus there’s a fifty foot statue of Godzilla behind the strip club. There’s an almost kitchen sink approach to the entire enterprise, but it works. Did you approach this film the same way as your earlier ones?

BP: Mike Raso came to me with the title and an idea about killer bugs. It seemed okay to me so I wrote up a script and away we went.

SRW: The cast is uniformly great (even Misty Mundae). The women are all strong in their own right (strippers as feminists!). Even when detailing clichés (the lazy stripper, the terrible stripper, the stoned stripper, etc.), they embrace their roles and seem to be having fun with it. Rob’s back again, this time flexing some acting muscle and creating a different kind of character. I saw an interview where you wrote the parts for the actors. I imagine that’s a very effective way of getting to the end result in a satisfying and efficient manner.

BP: Well, it should have been. The whole idea of setting the movie in a strip club came when I asked the actresses what kind of parts they'd like to play and the woman who was  supposed to be the lead said she wanted to play a stripper before she got too old. So I wrote the script accordingly and then she bailed on us before shooting started. I had to rearrange all the parts, like musical chairs. Misty was supposed to play the lazy stripper but she got bumped up to the lead, everyone else got shuffled around. Caitlin Ross, who ended up in the lazy part, was originally supposed to play the cop. We ended up one short so the cop was finally played by a singer who I met at a recording studio next door. She did her best. 

SRW: Well, I'm cutting us off right there. Join us again in two weeks for the conclusion of Brett Piper's extensive career retrospective interview where he'll share more tales of toiling in the film-making fringes. Same bat-time, same bat- channel...

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