Since the early 1980s, Brett Piper has given his blood, sweat and tears to create some of the most genuine retro-horror and adventure flicks I’ve ever seen. His haunted house flick DRAINIAC, the first Piper movie that ever came to my eyes, is one of the most underrated low budget shockers of the last decade, his episodic fright fest SHOCK-O-RAMA is a truely outstanding effort that I’ve seen half a dozen times already and most of his other films, such as the bug-tastic insectsploitation sagas ARACHNIA and THEY BITE! or the effects-heavy THE BLOB-homage BACTERIUM, are well worth watching, too. Early last year, after a two year hiatus from filmmaking, Brett finally came along with his next movie, namely the charming swamp monster flick MUCKMAN, starring SHOCK-O-RAMA- and BACTERIUM starlets Anju McIntyre and Alison Whitney. Since the movie has just been picked up by a distributor and will hopefully be out on DVD in the not-too-distant future, I’ve hooked up with Brett and had him share all the latest news from the swamp. So whatcha waitin’ for, monster movie maniacs? Let’s take a dive into the mire!
BRETT PIPER: “Mark Polonia and I were hanging out at his house one day and started wondering what kind of a movie we might be able to make with no money. Since we both like old fashioned monster movies we naturally thought of doing something like that. Mark had a couple of locations in mind he thought might be good so we hopped in his car and drove out to look at them and by the time we got back to his house we’d pretty much come up with the idea for MUCKMAN.”
BD: Though you’re mostly known as a horror filmmaker, almost all of your movies show a lot of influences from other genres, such as comedy or adventure, as well. And MUCKMAN is no exception to this. In fact, I’d even say that in case of MUCKMAN all of these genres are present in almost equal shares. Do you think that this might put off or disappoint some horror fans, who were looking forward to see a straight-forward monster movie, or do you think that the film’s funny characters and strong writing will keep the audience entertain anyway, even if the blood isn’t flowing non-stop and Muckie isn’t exactly the most gut-wrenching fiend in the history of cinema?
BP: “I’m afraid some people are going to be disappointed. This became even more obvious to us once we’d done a first cut of the film. There’s some gore, of course, but even that’s kind of a cheat. I’m hoping there’s enough entertainment value in the movie to keep the fans happy but I have my doubts. Actually if you look back at most of my work you’ll find there’s relatively little gore and a rather low body count, so maybe those who already like my work won’t be too let down. I once got an e-mail from someone who “accused” me of being gay because I don’t kill enough women in my films so I clearly don’t know what real men like to see! I don’t much like mean-spirited or brutal films. They’re not fun. I’m no H. G. Lewis.”
BD: Originally, this was intended to be a rather easy shoot and you had planned to have all the footage in the can in just three weekends. However, it turned out to be quite a bit different than planned and in the end it took you more than half a year to get all the shots you needed. What were the major problems, throw-backs and complications you had to face while shooting MUCKMAN?
BP: “All the problems we had with the film can be blamed on two people, who we’re calling the Barker Brothers. They were supposed to play Curly and Drew. One was ostensibly a friend of mine and the other was his brother, who had delusions of being an actor. On the first day of shooting they showed up a couple of hours late and then at mid-day they took another hour or so for lunch, which should have been a warning. The next morning one of them refused to sign his contract because he wanted his lawyer to look at it first, and when I told him I wouldn’t feel safe shooting any more footage with him until he did sign because I wouldn’t feel he was totally committed he informed me he wasn’t committed, that he could still back out any time he felt like it. I let him know this wasn’t acceptable, there was a blow-up, he and his brother spent the rest of the day sulking in their car while we shot around them (which made him even angrier–apparently everything was supposed to come to a dead stop while I gave him all my attention). Finally we got it all ironed out (I thought) but the next weekend they simply didn’t show. I got a call saying they were quitting because they weren’t having any fun. This threw everyone’s schedule out of whack. We managed to replace them with my nephew and his roommate, who were pretty good and much more reliable, but by then we were shooting in bits and pieces whenever anyone had some free time, and it dragged on for months. In the final movie there are whole scenes where all the actors were shot individually and then put together in the cutting room. It was a nightmare. All because of two losers who decided they didn’t want to play.”
BD: However, apart from those two troublemakers, I got the impression that everyone’s been a real trooper on set and did their best to make MUCKMAN a truly outstanding piece of low-budget film making. So, what can you say about the general atmosphere during the shoot and the cast and crew’s dedication for the project?
BP: Everyone else gave it their best, but once things started to unravel I’d have to say the atmosphere was mostly one of desperation. It was a matter of “Let’s get what we need and get this thing over with”. Which is too bad, because some people sacrificed a lot of time and effort to make the movie work.
BD: One thing I always liked about your movies is the huge amount of old school craftsmanship that finds its way into the flicks and always results in totally kick-ass costumes, props and miniatures. And lots of these can be found in MUCKMAN as well. Which of the monsters and creatures that can be seen is your personal fave? And which was most fun to build and animate?
BP: “The swamp creature at the end was kind of fun to build. I wouldn’t call making the Muckman suit “fun” because it was a lot of hard work, but it was pretty satisfying to see it done and walking around.”
BD: Personally, I absolutely love the Muckman costume! If I’m not mistaken, that’s the first life-size rubber suit you’ve built in ages, isn’t it? Why did you decide to go with a rubber suit instead of a miniature or stop motion model this time? And what advantages on the one hand and complications on the other went along with that decision?
BP: “I haven’t built any full sized suits since THEY BITE. The idea of having the Muckman be a man in the suit was to minimize the time needed in post-production, although there were still a lot of effects in the finished film. Also the man-in-the-suit monster is just a fun throwback to the kind of B-movies we like to pay homage to, like MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, IT: THE TERROR BEYOND SPACE, and so on.”
BD: Another scene that really amazed me was the stop motion scene towards the ending, when the giant swamp monster attacks the trailer. How hard was it to get that shot done, how satisfied are you with the result and how important is it for you in general to keep stop motion-animation alive in your movies–even though in this day and age almost everybody employs CGI rather than good ol’ handmade effects.
BP: “The shots weren’t all that hard. There were the miniatures to build, of course, not only the creature itself but the miniature RV. People think you can just walk into any toy store and buy them. You can’t. The animation itself probably took less than a week. I’d animate in the evenings, two or three shots each night. It was shot on 16mm film which matched the digital video surprisingly well. The most frustrating part was the film to tape transfer, which was done by a company in California and was pretty bad. There were a lot of interlacing problems that had to be touched up in post. All in all I’m fairly satisfied with the end result. And yes, it’s quite important to me to keep the torch of stop-motion burning. If I don’t, who will?”
BD: Another thing I like a lot about MUCKMAN, besides the special effects, is the writing and acting. The story is pretty cool with lots of good dialogue and funny remarks and everybody, first and foremost the two excellent lead actresses Anju McIntyre and Alison Whitney, did a great job representing their individual characters. How important was it for you to start shooting with a strong script and believable characters up your sleeve?
BP: “I’m actually not all that pleased with the script. Mark and I wrote it together from an outline, and I think partially because of that the story doesn’t flow all that well. And it’s kind of redundant. The same situations repeat themselves. Well, we have no one to blame but ourselves, do we? My favourite parts are the humorous scenes, especially with Horace and Elmer who cracked everyone up during the shoot. We kept saying we were going to turn them into the stars of their own series, like Ma and Pa Kettle.”
BD: You did the writing together with your old pal Mark Polonia, who also took care of the producer’s duties while you took place in the director’s chair. Since Mark and your work history dates back quite a couple of years (and your friendship even longer), I think it’s safe to say that you knew quite well what to expect when the two of you teamed up again to make another movie… so what’s the magic formula that makes Mark and you such a good team and have you already planned any other collaborations for the future?
BP: “It’s easy for Mark and I to work together because we see eye to eye on movies and how they should be made. We like the same kinds of film, mostly monster movies and old horror, and we both think our films should be made as cheaply and efficiently as possible with the minimum of BS. Mark has actually made many more movies than I have, because he makes them even quicker and cheaper. We’re both amused by the irony that MUCKMAN is my cheapest film ever and it’s one of his most expensive! So I guess we’re meeting in the middle. As for future plans, we definitely want to work together again but I don’t think it’ll be quite the collaboration that MUCKMAN was. Mark and I have both written scripts we want to do and we’ll work on them together but I suspect they will either be Mark Polonia movies that I work on with him or Brett Piper movies that he works on with me. Although you never know.”
BD: IMdB estimates the budget of MUCKMAN to be round about $50,000, however, since you already said in another interview that it’s your cheapest movie so far, I think they’ve been exaggerated quite a bit. Are you willing to spill the beans about how much it cost to make MUCKMAN or do you rather want this to remain a mystery? But one way or another, would you say that it has also certain advantages to work on such a small budget? For example, did the lack of money force you to be more creative in your decisions as a director and motivate you to be more thoughtful in your use of resources, etc?
BP: “I don’t think I’m ready to reveal the actual budget of MUCKMAN just yet. It’s tough enough to get a movie like this taken seriously (or as seriously as it deserves) without letting people in on how god-awful cheap it is, although I suppose I’ve just tipped my hand there anyway. The only real advantage to making movies this cheap is freedom. Not only do you have no investors trying to tell you what to do but you’re not under any real financial pressure. If MUCKMAN doesn’t sell, nobody’s going to go broke or lose their house. We’ll just shrug it off and go on to the next one.”
BD: If I’m not mistaken, you’re currently negotiating with horror film festivals and DVD publishers who’re interested in screening/distributing the flick. So would you say there’s a good chance that MUCKMAN will finally get an official release in the not too distant future?
BP: “Mark and I actually just signed a contract with a distributor this afternoon. So we’ll see what kind of release it gets. And it’ll be available on our websites (www.brettpiper.com and www.myspace.com/polonia_brothers).”
BD: Your next project’s already in the making and this time you’ve based the script on the works of a pretty famous horror and mystery writer–a fact that occurred on account of happenstance rather than on purpose. Can you already let us know a bit more about that upcoming flick of yours in general and the writing of the script in particular?
BP: “I’ve started writing a script I called NIGHTMARE HOUSE. It’s about a woman who moves into a new house and starts having weird dreams (I’ll bet you saw that coming) which turn out to have consequences on her reality. I had the entire story outlined when I started doing a little research on dreams in movies and literature and found out I had inadvertently “borrowed” the basic premise of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”. As it happened Anthony Polonia, Mark’s son, had given me a collection of Lovecraft stories in which “Dreams” was included, so I read it and decided to make my movie a loose adaptation of it, borrowing a few more incidents from Lovecraft where they fit. It’s a sort of retroactive adaptation.”
BD: Well, that’s it for now… thanks a lot for the detailed insight into the making of MUCKMAN and good luck with the distribution of that flick! If there’s anything left you wanna say to the horror minions out there, here’s your chance to do so now!
BP: “Help support starving filmmakers! Buy our movies!”