INTERVIEW: William Lustig
Interview Conducted by Drew Reiber
Late last August, I had a chance to check out the new Festival of Fear National Horror Expo at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Hosted by Rue Morgue Magazine, special guests included world famous filmmakers George Romero, Alejandro Jodorowsky and many other stars and artists related to the genre. In what turned out to be a surprise, I discovered many industry professionals involved in the home video market were there to promote their DVD companies and labels. Among them was horror filmmaker and DVD producer extraordinaire William Lustig.
Including a directing career spanning fifteen plus years, Lustig became one of the key producers responsible for much of the supplemental features we associate with the term "special edition" on home video. If you consider yourself a pretty big movie fan, well... you may not know it, but chances are you've already seen a DVD showcasing features he created. The DVD's for Heathers, Army of Darkness, Django and many other cult classics released through specialty labels such as Anchor Bay Entertainment or his more recent creation, Blue Underground.
Unlike major film studios like Warner Bros. or Paramount, that handle the release of their own catalogue titles, companies like Blue Underground focus on the preparation and presentation of more obscure films and genres, those which are usually ignored by studios but loved by the hardcore movie fanatic. "Spaghetti" westerns, "Giallo" thrillers, drive-in classics and ultra-sleaze exploitation are all given the superior attention you would usually assume were reserved for the Lawrence of Arabia's or Citizen Kane's of the cinema world. But who is to say that Bob Clark's supernatural Vietnam-related horror classic Deathdream deserves any less? Every movie has its fans, and I know I find myself returning to George Romero's The Crazies more often than Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. Though I like them both, I prefer angry chaos to preachy melodrama. So sue me!
When Blue Underground secures the rights to a title, the following release is carefully created through the combination of seeking good film elements, transferring them and then complimenting the movie with the eye and ear candy such as featurettes, audio commentaries and image galleries. Instead of that studio-released bare bones DVD we typically see, you're getting your diamond in the rough polished to it's brightest for the same price. These cult classics receive better treatment because the people behind-the-scenes appreciate them just as much as we do.
So there I was with a chance to speak to a filmmaker/DVD producer whose work I was already following, so I naturally took the opportunity to get an interview that might prove informational to longtime horror fans and DVD enthusiasts alike. Enjoy.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for participating.
Lustig: My pleasure.
Interviewer: I know you've always spoken of Blue Underground as a multi-phase company. You'll start with your acquisition department and eventually begin producing films. Is that correct?
Lustig: Producing films is sort of a natural progression of having a company like ours. You can't be solely reliant on what other people produce. You have to, in order to maintain the company, start to generate your own product. But we haven't really quite gotten there yet. I had hoped by this time we would have, but we're still a little ways away.
Interviewer: You've directed, if I'm not mistaken, Maniac, the Maniac Cop films, Uncle Sam, Relentless... are you planning on getting back into directing?
Lustig: Probably not. I'll probably stay with producing, because I think I can offer a lot to a production based on my experience. I think [to make] movies, you've got to divorce yourself from the business a little bit and I don't know if I can do it... I think I would be better as producer than as a director, let me put it that way.
Interviewer: You've brought a lot of that experience and also a lot of your connections to your work at Blue Underground. How would you say your experiences in the filmmaking field have impacted producing for home video release?
Lustig: Well, there's no doubt about it that my experience in directing and being in the entertainment business as long as I have, both in contacts and in technical knowledge, has been enormous assets. I know a lot of people around the world and with a strong technical background and having analyzing some of these films from so many years ago, I understand the history about them better. I understand where elements might be and what labs may have them.
Interviewer: Do you restore the films yourself?
Lustig: Oh yeah. Well, we oversee them. We don't have the equipment to do it, but we oversee the restoration of the films.
Interviewer: You've been working with Vittorio Stararo on the transfer of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, right?
Lustig: Well, yes and no. He is supervising the transfer, but I have not spoken with him. I have someone in Italy who is basically producing the master for me and is very, very good.
Interviewer: I know there are a lot of legal issues with distributing films. Are there any projects you are still working on that might be caught up in terms of rights issues?
Lustig: There's always that. (laughs) Which ones don't have potential rights issues? We've been lucky in that we've been able to clear a lot of titles. I can't afford to put out a title unless the rights are cleared.
Interviewer: It's really nice how you were able to organize some of these director-based sets such as the Larry Cohen Collection and the upcoming Alan Clarke Collection. In fact, I only recently discovered that you and Larry worked on so many films together. I then backtracked and realized, 'Oh, that's why I liked the Maniac Cop series.' It had that multi-genre vibe that Cohen's films show and I was glad to see you two worked together on the releases of his features, brining more appreciation through supplements and the like on films like Bone and Q - The Winged Serpent.
Lustig: Well, Larry is someone who I've greatly admired... before I even met him, I was a fan of Larry Cohen's. And he really truly is an auteur. He didn't make soulless genre films, he made genre films that he had a strong point of view in. That's something you don't see today. Most people are just interested in the effects and the action, and then give very little thought... to thought, to making a very thought-provoking piece. To me, a quintessential Larry film is Q. There you have a monster movie with the world's worst special effects, but it's so entertaining because you really get into the characters and you're into the story. And it's a beautiful piece. It's well written, the dialogue is witty... I'll never forget the crook, played by Michael Moriarty, going into the diner to see the mayor and demanding the Nixon pardon for his crimes, in order for him to tell them where this bird is.
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean, you can't get the mime cop scene out of your mind. When Richard Roundtree is attacked and the mime just stands there. It's already built in, the humor, without having to utter so much as a line. It's great, and he's not the only one. You've got films from so many directors of various backgrounds that you're bringing to new audiences through DVD.
What are the most difficult aspects of restoring and providing the films?
Lustig: The biggest challenge we're faced with, most times, is finding the best materials available. I don't care what level of equipment you have... if you start with something less than, and sometimes you have to, it's never going to get that much better. The first thing we do is seek out the best materials available for a particular project, and that often means checking laboratories and storage places around the world. So that's number one. Restoration is part detective work and part understanding the technology, which keeps changing every day.
Interviewer: Besides finding the elements, how do you locate the rights to releasing the titles? I know there are some movies out there I can think of, say a film like Monster Squad, where all I ever hear is that no one knows who owns the rights. How would you even begin to track them down? Would you start with the filmmakers?
Lustig: Sometimes it could be. I'll give you a very simple thing. Let's say I was seeking out Monster Squad. I think one of the writers on that was Shane Black. I'd call up Shane, I know Shane. "Hey Shane, I'm interested in putting out Monster Squad. When you wrote the script, do you recall who your agreement was with?" And he may say, "When I wrote the script, I wrote it for this particular producer." Or I can maybe ask Shane, "Shane, when you get residual checks..." That's the Writer's Guild [of America], they get residual checks. And Monster Squad places someplace around the world, I mean it's going to play someplace, he'll get a check. "Who does the check come from?" And he might say it comes from Studio Canal.
I'll call up Studio Canal and I'll speak to their acquisitions/sales department and these are of course people I have relationships with, and if I don't, then that's a cold call. But I'll call up and I'll say, "I'm interested in North American rights to Monster Squad? Do you guys have North American rights?" And they may say no, so I'll say "Ok, where are your materials for this movie and is there another pledge holder?" meaning someone who has access to those materials. Then they'll say, "No, our materials are in Technicolor London." I'll call up Technicolor London. I'll call up my friend Simon Constable at Technicolor London and go, "Simon, I'm trying to track down the rights to Monster Squad.
I spoke to Studio Canal and they told me they have the original negative and interpositive, which is sitting at your lab. Besides Studio Canal, who else has access to that material?" He'll go look it up in the computer, and then whoever has access to that material, presumably, is the owner. He may say, "Well, Sony has access, and 20th Century Fox has access, and these people have access..." and then it comes down to finding out who has what rights. Does Sony just have access because they own Latin American rights? So I'll call up and I'll ask Sony. I'll talk to them, "I'll say, look, I'm interested in this. I understand you have access to this material, for what rights do you control it?" And they're very accommodating.
Interviewer: Do you ever find yourself in competition with other DVD producers and labels over a certain property?
Lustig: Yes, I've had that happen. Not often, but I've had it.
Interviewer: What typically do you, or does Blue Underground do, when that happens?
Lustig: There's a very good point. It depends on what the needs are of the people who own it. As an example... you may have, say a filmmaker, who is not in dire need of money and really wants to put out a special edition of his movie. So he may be more likely to want to do a deal with Blue Underground, who he knows will do a very good transfer, will do really good materials and extras and all the rest of the stuff, then say doing it with MGM. Because MGM will just take it and put it out. And so that happens. Then again, MGM could always out bid me. So the issue that it comes down is the need of the people who own it, money.
Sometimes I can't compete if it's money, because I put so much time, effort and money into the projects that we do that there's other companies out there who will say, "Well if I don't spend that money and I just do it cheaply, I'll maybe not sell as many but I'll sell enough that I can make as much profit." So they'll pay the producer more money but spend less money on producing the DVD. One way or another, there's only so much water that is held in the bucket of how much this movie can make. So, someplace something has to give. It's either going to be financial or it's going to be in the quality of the product.
Interviewer: On developing supplements, don't you guys actually license some of your supplements to other studios? You did some for the recent Hammer releases from Paramount Films (Captain Kronos, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell). Is that true?
Interviewer: How does that work, do you get contacted for something like that?
Lustig: Well, we have a relationship with Anchor Bay UK and Warner Bros. UK. So we did the special editions of The Deer Hunter, Badlands, Captain Kronos and I think some of the others. We did the special edition of Don't Look Now. We've done the Roman Polanski Collection that Anchor Bay UK put out. So we do these.
Interviewer: Has the special edition of Deer Hunter come out here yet?
Lustig: No, we only did it for Warner Bros. UK. In this country it's owned by Universal.
Interviewer: When you do these supplements, is it at the convenience of the filmmakers?
Lustig: No. I have a guy going to Europe in two weeks to do new interviews with Jess Franco, Dario Argento... he's flying all over the place. He's doing stuff in France, in Jess Franco's hometown in Spain, in Rome... it's not convenient. If people are willing to cooperate with us, we're going to go there and do it.
Interviewer: I really appreciate the way you theme your releases. The way you line them up every month, even if they're not by the same filmmakers, they'll share a theme. Is it difficult to do that every single month.
Lustig: Yes. Yes it is. That's one of our challenges. As an example, Circle of Iron was a project that we completed at the end of last year, but we sat on it because we were licensing Cannonball and we knew for marketing purposes it would be stronger to put out Cannonball and Circle of Iron together and then we tried to time the release so that it would be just after the release of Kill Bill Volume Two on DVD so there would be an awareness of David Carradine among the retailers. All of that is marketing decisions.
Interviewer: I saw a Blue Underground promo reel that included Circle of Iron, and I noticed that Kill Bill was tapping into some of that character from the clips.
Lustig: Of course they were, absolutely. And we knew that. So we timed it to maximize the value of that movie. I think I licensed Circle of Iron in February of 2003. Had I rushed it into production and say put it out six months later, it would not have nearly the impact, since we knew that David Carradine was the high point of Kill Bill. We hadn't seen it, but we heard rumors. We knew that to maximize the value of Circle of Iron and Cannonball, that we had to ride the coattails of Kill Bill Volume 2.
Interviewer: In terms of Kill Bill as what it is, as it reflects the genres and era of filmmaking that companies like Blue Underground focus on... has there been a noticeable change in the market since Kill Bill arrived? Has there been any change in interest you could see?
Lustig: I haven't noticed. But maybe I'll see it when we release Circle of Iron and Cannonball. I did notice [something], it's kind of interesting. We're about five weeks away from the release of Circle of Iron and I noticed on DVD Empire we were like in the top 1000, which five weeks before street date is pretty good. That means there's a big presale on it. That means probably by the time we get to street date, we'll at least be in the top 50.
Interviewer: That's excellent. In regards to your replacement of the Sadomania DVD, I thought that it was indicative of Blue Underground's appreciation of their consumer base.
Lustig: Well, yeah. Look, we made a mistake. I went back, I corrected it. I did another press run and I have allowed the consumers to send us their discs and we immediately replace them. We've gotten maybe about 100 back and we continue to get them back at maybe about 3 to 5 a week and we immediately replace them. I know myself, over the years of being a fan/collector/consumer of videos and DVD's and laserdiscs that I like to treat the customer like I wish I were treated. And I appreciate the fact that we did it. I always resent it when companies put their head in the sand when they made a mistake. My thing was to tell the fans we made a mistake and fix it. It was not defective, it was not something were anybody ever complained, but we just knew it was wrong. And I think for people who appreciate movies, I think they would appreciate that we went back and corrected it.
Interviewer: You guys have been talking about the Giallo Collection 2. How is that coming along?
Lustig: It's good. We shot all the interviews. I think there is one more we are shooting, there's one interview with one of the directors... but we shot the bulk of our interviews last February in Rome. We started the transfers and we should be releasing it around the end of June next year.
Interviewer: I also saw something of Bird with the Crystal Plumage during your promo reel.
Lustig: We're releasing that as part of the Giallo Collection [Volume 2].
Interviewer: That's going to be part of the set? Wow.
I heard there were going to be some rights reversions on some of the catalogue titles at Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Lustig: Yes, they are reverting back to me.
Interviewer: Does that include the Hammer titles?
Lustig: Yes, but I feel as though the Hammer titles are played out. The economics is such that I've decided not to go back and revisit [them]. I know I did an interview... the Quatermass titles, the early Hammer films I did... I just felt that the economics were such that it didn't make sense to go back. They're already out there. They're not bad. It's not like I can add more extras. I mean Christopher Lee's only going to... it was an arm twist to get him to do the commentary. I just felt... let them rest.
Interviewer: What about the Dario Argento films?
Lustig: Now [on] those I'm going back.
Interviewer: I know a lot of fans have been talking for years about an issue with the Suspiria audio track...
Lustig: Well, the thing with the Suspiria audio, ok? Like I said, I'll go back and I can fix stuff, but the Suspiria audio situation I think was overblown on Moebius. I really do. I read all those things, I even went back and listened. And yes, there are some things that are perhaps different. Here's the thing, what people don't understand is that the technology of that period... they did not have automated sound boards back in the days when they made Suspiria. So every version of Suspiria is going to be different, it's not going to be the same. They're going to overlook stuff, they're going to compromise. There will be some where it will be a little bit louder, somewhere it's going to be a little softer. They did not have the digital technology that we have today, so that the French version, or the Spanish version, or the English version with the exception of the actual voice tracks... everything else is the same.
When they did Suspiria, it was back in the days when they were manually mixing the reels on the fly. They would have three people, one person doing dialogue, another person doing effects, another person doing music... and they would basically mix on the fly. And sometimes they would do it the same and sometimes they wouldn't. When we go to do 5.1's, we deliberately do not change... I did at the beginning. I did it when I first started doing 5.1's, but I stopped. We don't change the mix as it is on the actual, what they call stems or tracks or whatever you want to call it. There are tones at the beginning, when you put a reel. Have you ever put up a reel from a sound studio?
Lustig: There's a tone at the beginning. That tone is used to set the machine that it's being played back on to a certain unity to the way it was recorded, so that the playback is the same as how it happened recorded. It's done at the same level. So what we do is we put all of the tracks, and in the case of Suspiria we had basically three tracks - the dialogue, music and effects - we put them all in unity and the only thing that we did was expand them for the DTS, which later used as a down conversion for the Dolby Digital and 2.0 [Stereo]. So we never changed anything, that's the thing. There's an argument to be made in retrospect, that perhaps we should have gotten in and done some tweaks. But it was my policy at the time that however it is... is. And I'm not going to go in and re-direct the movie. I'll go in and take what's there and expand it, to create imaging. Imaging would be for instance, if a car goes across the screen. I won't change the level, but I'll image it so that you'll hear the car coming from left to right, as an example. Or if for some reason someone says a line off screen, I'll take that line and I'll move it.
So all we do is image the audio, but I don't change the mix of the audio. Because we had so much latitude having the three separate tracks on Suspiria, the three separate stereo tracks, if I had to do it over again? If I could not get Dario...? Because Dario didn't care. We never invited him, but I knew that once Dario finishes a movie, he's finished with it. He doesn't care to back, he doesn't want to look at the transfers. I've invited him, because we do the transfers in Rome, he doesn't want to go in, he doesn't care. Once it's finished, he's finished and he's on to the next thing. He'll do interviews, but he's not going to go and revisit the film. One thing I thought about is, if I went back on Suspiria again [and] was to bring in Claudio Simonetti, he was one of the key people from Goblin. And he might be able to be more helpful in something out the sound a little bit.
The simple truth is we did nothing to undermine what was there, the argument is... what was there? If you were to say, "How come I didn't hear that on the English track? Or I didn't hear that on the Italian or French track?" If you were to play all these tracks separately and maybe play a five-minute section, you would hear things on all of them that are different. Slightly, they are not day and night, but there are variations and it's simply because of the technology.
Interviewer: With the rights reversions to the Dario Argento films and perhaps others, will we be seeing more director-based sets such as the initial release boxes like the Alan Clarke Collection or previously releases collected like the Larry Cohen Collection?
Lustig: You're going to see a few of them pop up, but not many. I'm doing the Enzo Castellari [set] both separately and in a box. The police pictures - High Crime, Street Law, The Drug Route, and The Big Racket. There are commentaries on some of them too with Enzo.
Interviewer: Oh, thank you for that. Actually, Keoma was one of the most amazing Spaghetti westerns that I've seen.
Lustig: It is. Great movie.
Interviewer: I've been hearing you guys are working on Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
Lustig: We are. That one is tied up. There are some legal entanglements with it, which we have an attorney in Rome working on.
Interviewer: Four Flies is part of an "animal trilogy", correct, which includes Cat O'Nine Tails?
Lustig: Well, that's actually the second one, which we already put out. Not Blue Underground, I put it out through Anchor Bay. We did a full special edition on that, we did an interview with Argento. It's out there, it's available. A beautiful transfer too. There are three films, there is Bird, Cat and Flies.
Interviewer: In terms of the Internet as a recent medium, at least in the mainstream for the last 10 years or so, have you found it beneficial to your company?
Interviewer: How much a part of marketing do you consider the Internet?
Lustig: Well, I consider our website to be an important marketing tool. One thing I wanted was that we would have the trailers available to people, so we had the trailers up. At first I had a little bit more ambitious idea of having exclusive interviews and things like that. I sort of gave up on it, because it got to be too much. So I do like using the website as a tool for people to know what's coming out, details of what we're coming out with. We do read what's on the Internet. I don't participate in the discussions, but we do use it when it's appropriate or somebody mentions something like, "I hope they have this version", we'll go and look for that version. You know? We'll look for stuff.
I read something recently that was really bizarre about Zombie. Somebody wrote that Media Blasters and Blue Underground screwed up Zombie because it's missing footage that was available in the Jerry Gross released version. Well I can tell you, and I can clear this up, that the one I did for Anchor Bay came from a print that was struck from the Jerry Gross negative of Zombie and the transfer that both Media Blasters and Blue Underground did came from the original camera negative. There is no other footage! There is no other footage (laughs) of Zombie. This is as complete as complete can be.
Blue Underground's upcoming slate includes the November releases of The Loveless and Smithereens, early works of noted female directors Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker) and Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, Sex and the City) respectively. You can visit their website and view movie trailers of their releases at www.blue-underground.com.
Drew Reiber is a regular contributor for PopImage
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