INTERVIEW WITH David Friedman by Eric S. Eichelberger
DF: Well, She-Freak was a real labor of love, so to speak. As you all know, I traveled with carnivals when I was a kid. And I have always, in fact, I been in the carnival business since I retired when I had to finally quit a couple years ago when I couldn’t sing anymore. But when I was about nine years old, I saw a picture made by Tod Browning called Freaks. And I think that picture left the most impression on me of any movie I’d ever seen out of all the years I’ve been going to movies. And I also thought, “Gee, I’d like to make this.” Of course by that time, I made She-Freak in 1967. There weren’t any more human oddities around so we had to gaff ‘em all. And of course if you all remember, those of you who saw the original Tod Browning film, it took place on a European circus. It was very dark, very lugubrious. Here I am making a picture on a California carnival which was bright with a lot of color and everything else. But it was basically my good friend, the reviewer on the Los Angeles Times said, Nevermind that it’s a direct steal from Tod Browning’s picture it’s a surprisingly good little picture. And I’ve always kinda liked the picture. This ladies and gentleman is my great niece Micah Everett. My eyes and ears. I’m almost blind and I don’t hear so well. But if any of you have any questions…
Eric: What’s the best way to get money to make exploit movies?
DF: The best way, is the way I did it. First of all, I had some money. See, I made my money the old-fashioned way – I stole it. We financed our pictures, basically through cash flow from other pictures. You wanna know the three magic words? If you know these three words, you’ll always have money. You wanna know? “Stick ‘em up!”
Eric: Can you talk about the music you put in your films?
DF: Most of the movies in my pictures were original. And were written by my friend and line producer, William Adam Castleman, Billy Castleman, Billy Allen. The deal was these original scores were all recorded with pretty good orchestras. Billy was partnered with Bay Luce with a music company. Billy May the band leader, if you remember him with Lou Parker, and the deal was that they wrote the music for the pictures and I could use them in the feature but they retain the publishing rights. Which meant that they could sell those scores for other movies for industrials, for television shows, or whatever. But I always had wound up with the first use of an original score and, I know that Bill tells me that from time to time he still gets checks from ASCAP for the music in Trader Hornee and in Johnny Firecloud etc, etc. Whether any of them have been publicly released on disc, I don’t think so. But Bill still retains the publishing rights to all the movies, most all of my pictures. Every one of these pictures had an original story.
Eric: When the movies were first screened what was the audience reaction?
DF: Well, one of the beautiful things about being in the exploitation business, back in my days, and something that a lot of young filmmakers today will never enjoy because a lot of the pictures that are being made today, the cheaper pictures, they don’t ever play theaters. There’s no room for them in theaters anymore. They go straight to video. Then go to cable, if they’re lucky. But being in the exploitation business, to me the great thrill wasn’t particularly in making the pictures. As a matter of fact, I wrote most of the pictures that I made. I didn’t particularly dig hanging around the set. But my big thrill was after that picture was made standing in front of the theater and watching the people come in and go out and if they liked the picture, they told ya. And that was the big thing I say that people like Bob Cresse, Don Davis and Harry Novak, and the rest of us could all enjoy watching our pictures playing in a theater and getting the reaction there. Sure, when you were making a nudie cutie it was so automatic. There was a chain of theaters which Dan, Sonny and I started called Pussycat theatres. We put a picture in Pussycat Theatres it was like, you put the film in one end, turned the crank and money came out the other end. It was a natural. The chain grew to the point where there were 42 Pussycat Theatres in the state of California. And all you had to do was play the Pussycat circuit, and you had all your money back and a profit if you never played another theater. So it was a pretty automatic thing. Surprisingly in that business, with the nudie cuties, the customers would tell the popcorn guy or the manager, the ticket taker, whether they liked the picture or not and they knew a lot about that. This guy named Sully Cullen ran a little theatre right here on sunset and western. You guys may remember the Sunset Theater It was a Pussycat theater. And Sully was great about stopping people – “How’d you like the picture? How’d you like the picture?” One day some guy walked out, bought some popcorn, after he’d seen the picture, was going out eating the popcorn. Sully said, “How’d you like the picture?” The guy threw the popcorn at him. He obviously didn’t like the picture. Believe it or not, you had a pretty good reaction. The greatest reaction to your movie is what they do at the box office. Because after that first performance, you know then and there if it’s good or bad.
Eric: What are your thoughts on the remakes of these older films like 2001 Maniacs?
DF: Two young men contacted me four years ago that they wanted to remake 2001 Maniacs. Well, it involved more than myself. It involved Herschel Gordon Lewis. It involved Mike Grainy who runs a company called Something Weird Videos which I think you all know. And another gentleman, named Jimmy Maslin. And I said, Hey, this is great. This is the one picture that is viable for a remake. Its Two thousand Maniacs! because it’s a classic story of north versus the south. Well, Herschell, he wasn’t enthused. He wanted to direct it. But he sent me a script and I loved it. Because in the original, most of the people that got taken out by the maniacs were nice people. In this picture, there were some people that you hated and you were glad to see them get offed. I loved the script. Herschell didn’t like the script. Mike Grainy was like, “yeah, whatever, anyway.” It took ‘em, two and half three years they did get started one time when they got the money. They opened offices all on the Rawley lot right across the street from Paramount. And a guy gave them an initial deposit and a good chunk of change and then disappeared. And they had to shut it down. Finally, the money came in. The picture was budgeted at a million and a quarter and they had the million and the quarter. They paid for the remake rights which was split between the four of us. Everything was…it was almost a year ago which they started shooting in a little town called Lumpkin, Georgia, 150 miles south of where we lived. So Michael drive me there and we spent a couple of days on the set. Robert Englund is playing the mayor. And a nice cast of a lot of TV players. Very cute young little girls. But as I said today, I saw it and I’m just totally delighted that it is very very good. I hope it’ll be released in theaters about the time of the spring break 2005. And I guarantee that all of you if you see it will love the picture. They finally made a modern version of an old fashioned movie but kept the joke intact. And that was what was very gratifying. About two years ago, Herschell and I were invited to the film festival at San Sebastian, Spain. And in one night we screened Bloodfeast, Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red. And here was an audience that none of them spoke English. We had to run subtitles with a digital thing under the screen. Of course when they saw the horrible acting, they started laughing. Even though they didn’t understand English. And the audience breaks up. After the screening, when Herschell and I get on the stage, I said, “At last, we finally got an audience who got it.” It’s kinda gratifying. In fact its very flattering that after all these years propagating some of the worst movie trash in history that they recognized because of a new technology called DVD and video. And you find a whole new gallery of fans, so to speak. When it came to exploitation films, the old exploitation films like Dwain Esper who made Marijuana Narcotic and Louis Sonny. It was more than just showing a movie. They always had something in the lobby. Old man Sonny had a crime show called “Capital Punishment” and he’d go from town to town, and he’d sell a postcard showing him and Rory Garner, the man he captured, in 1921, the most wanted man in America. And he had a jail cell and he put that, set that up in the lobby, find the town drunk and put him in striped costume and handed him two dollars and he’d sit there all day. “This is what a jail cell looks like.” And I know when Dwain Esper bought the rights to Freaks from Mrs. Browning. He re-titled it Forbidden Love. The love was between the midget and the lady Aerialist over by Kunova. He got a whole lobby full of human oddities, circus sideshow people and put ‘em in the lobby of the theater. So the whole gimmick was you gave them more than a picture, you gave them a whole show. How many of you people remember a picture called Poor White Trash? My grips who made that picture was a fellow Alabaman. My kinda drive-in and another drive-in in New Orleans. Many years ago he made a picture called Bayou about the Cajuns. And United Artists released the picture and it went nowhere; nobody came to see it. And at the end of 5 years, 7 years contract, Mike takes it back; comes up with the greatest campaign in the world for Poor White Trash. Makes a whole trailer with him and his back to the audience, and says, “I am the producer of Poor White Trash. Due to the abnormal material of this picture, we cannot show you any scenes. However, armed guards will be at the box office to make sure that no one under the age of eighteen appear and you must sign this affidavit that you’re eighteen.” And he hired some gazoonies. He put guns on them. He sent him around with a paper that says, “I am eighteen.” Half the people who went to see the picture couldn’t write anyway. They’d sign it with an X. He went through the United States like Grant took Richmond. I mean, it was unbelievable. And the whole thing was this word: abnormal. And I said, Mike, you got the guts of a burglar. And he said, “Dave, they wanna see a picture, they can see it on television.” He said, “You gotta give them a show.” He said, “But I gave them a show even before they got in to see the picture.” That was what Poor White Trash was. As I said, he had these guys out in front; you gotta sign this affidavit, carrying a 44. People thought they were going to see something. You could have played this picture at a Sunday school picnic. I’ll tell you one story. I don’t know if any of you have seen a picture I made called Starlet. This was the first adult movie about
adult movie industry. This young girl tried out for it and she gave me a screen test. So I’m writing this script and once in a while I get a little evil. But uh, in high school and college, I read a lot of Shakespeare. In College Theater, I played Shakespeare. So at any rate, I gave her Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice which is eighteen pages long but it ran three pages in the script. “Take thee not a pound of flesh but shed not a drop of blood…” It goes on and on and on. So a little girl named Dee Lockwood. She was, I guess in high school had been in a couple of plays, she had other attributes. But we get to shoot this thing. We put her in a robe, put up a piece of scenery, and she starts reading this thing, word for word perfectly. Dick Kanter who was directing the picture looks at me, I look at him. The sound guy says, “Wow.” She goes through the whole three pages and doesn’t miss a word. So I said, “Gee, that was wonderful. Can we punch in for the close up?” She picked it up right up and did another two minutes. I said, “Okay, can I get a reverse on it. Pick it up.” She says yeah. She gets through and everybody in the crew gives her a hand. She walks over to me and says, “Mr. Freidman, you write the most beautiful dialogue.” As a matter of fact, when I started She-Freak I get a call from Sam Markoff. Whom you may remember, headed a company called AIP. Sam calls me over and says, “Hey, I hear you’re starting a carnival picture.” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Well don’t make it as bloody as that Bloodfeast and AIP will distribute it.” So there wasn’t that much blood in it other than the screwdriver through the hand and of course the end of it. And I show it to Sam and he said, “Why didn’t you have more blood and guts into it?” So from then on I never listened to anyone.
Eric: Do any of your pictures stand out as a favorite?
DP: well, I’m like the ever pregnant mother, I love them. She-freak is probably one of my favorites. Trader Hornee was such a lot of fun to make. Ya’ll wanna hear a little story about making that one? Did anybody here ever see it? When we were shooting the jungle scenes up at Franklin Park reservoir which is about five minutes from the Beverly Hills hotel and here are all these African Americans that are running around, playing the natives. And we can see this guy way up in the hills that looks like a hundred million dollar home. He’s looking down and what in the world is going on down there. Here are all these black Americans and here’s this elephant, all of these people. So, one guy says, I’m gonna climb up there, knock on his door and say, “Hey man, we’re your new neighbors.” But that picture was a tremendous amount of fun. That little blond girl. I was in Atlanta with my buddy Russ. Russ Meyer who just passed away this last few months, thank you. This little girl is kind of working as a concierge at the regency hotel. And I said, “Russ, gee take a look at that kid. She’s a knockout.” And Russ said immediately, “Ah, she doesn’t have enough uh… (points to chest area).” And I said, “Well then you probably should’ve worked for the carnation milk company.” That picture to me was a lot of fun, a lot of gags in it, and it was directed by a good friend of mine neighbor Jonathan Lucas which was also the director of The Dean Martin Show. So I was lucky. Anyway, getting back to She-Freak, the makeup guy in that picture was Harry Thomas. And Harry had worked for Ed Wood. If you all remember, if you all saw, Ed Wood, the picture with Johnny Depp, there was a character, Harry Thomas, who was the makeup man in the film. But Harry was the makeup guy for a lot of us in those days. I, like Ed Wood, among younger kids, I’m kinda famous because I knew Ed Wood. And I can tell you some stories there, but I better not. The only difference that most of us knew we were making crap but Ed really thought he was making good pictures.
Eric: What is the future of exploitation?
DP: The future? Well, as I said earlier, the young filmmakers of today making exploitation films don’t have the thrill of seeing their films in the theater. Part of exploitation was going from town to town putting up posters just like a traveling circus or carnival. Putting out heralds. Putting something up in front of the theater. Maybe having a guy stand up in front and talk. “Hey, hey, here’s a show where they take it off, wrap it up, roll it out, pull it out and throw it right at you. The show for those between 18 and 85. The under 18 you wouldn’t understand, the over 85, you couldn’t stand it.” You know, you gave him a whole pitch. You gave ‘em something in the lobby. That was real exploitation. Today there are a lot of good filmmakers. Fred Olen Ray is a good filmmaker Jim Wynorski. These are good friends of mine. Unfortunately they will never have the thrill that I had. That Herschell had. That Bob Cresse and Don Davis, even Harry Hovak. Roger Corman’s gonna be here, of seeing your picture play in a theater. But there will always be room, I think, with DVD. I won’t say videotape anymore, that’s the 8-track of the future. The DVD and the next process will come along. So there will always be someway they can see it, on internet, cable, or home video. It’ll always be there because hey, let’s face it, its cheap thrills. And that’s what’s its all about! So people will always pay to see the forbidden. “Adults only”- the two magic words. In movies and or what. You’ll gasp, you’ll winch, you’ll shudder, but you’ll see true truths and learn facts. Hey thanks so much for coming. I hope you enjoyed the show. You know, you can do so many things in the picture business. You can make them laugh, you can make them cry, you can make ‘em get fighting mad, you can make ‘em throw up, but you can’t bore ‘em. And I hope none of you were bored tonight. Thanks so much for coming.