Jack Hill, Filmmaker
It's May 14, 2004 and I'm attending the Movieside Film Fest in Chicago, IL. Check it out at www.movieside.com. The festival is run in an underground fashion celebrating the independent spirit with short and feature length films, live music of all sorts and non-corporate sponsors vending in the lobby. Festival coordinator and go-to guy Rusty Nails runs this festival of mayhem. Movieside has been in business for the past three years and they have grown up quite a bit during that time. They have several screenings a year and this weekend they are bringing two of the all time great independent filmmakers in the likes of George Romero and Jack Hill. This interview is about Jack Hill so we'll talk about Romero another time. Jack Hill is the initiator of the 70's women-in-prison genre and helped to define the Blaxploitation genre. He's the director of such classic cult films as Spiderbaby, The Big Doll House, Foxy Brown and Coffy. Jack Hill is a cult film legend lost for nearly two decades and rediscovered thanks to video, a strong underground following and Quentin Tarantino's popularity. Thanks to Rusty Nails for the hook up and thanks to Jack Hill for donating his time and insight. Now here's the interview punk.
Gary: I'm sitting here with Jack Hill the legendary cult film director considered to be the initiator of the women-in-prison genre of the seventies. As well, you helped to define the Blaxploitation genre and you discovered Pam Grier. But I guess at the center of it all you would be considered an independent filmmaker. Especially in the spirit of working on extremely low budgets with insanely short shooting schedules. Whew! That was a mouth full. How did you break into the film business?
Jack: Well I went to UCLA to get my degree in music with the idea of learning to score films and that's how I got into the cinema department. I had some experience with making films and editing them. I had some experience with photography so I got into the cinema department and took a required writing course and basically I wanted to be a composer but the more I got into it the more my teachers got into it and encouraged me to go on. So I did a directing assignment that was a fifteen-minute film and then I did a student film which was a thirty-minute film called The Host. Students submitted scripts and each semester they would pick three that would be made into a twenty to thirty minute film. After that I got odd jobs writing, editing and doing photography. Then I got a job working for Roger Corman and started adding scenes to pictures that needed more running time and fixing things that didn't quite work, shooting inserts and pick-ups. Various things.
Gary: Not a bad way to start off.
Jack: No, not all. Then I got a chance to do some more stuff. At about that time I met some people that wanted to finance a horror picture and they came across my script for Spiderbaby and then I got to do it.
Gary: That was your first feature directing?
Gary: Many of your films have been said to define the so-called Blaxploitation genre? What were some of the difficulties or criticism you faced by working in this genre in the sixties and seventies especially coming off the climax of the civil rights movement?
Jack: Well yeah, there weren't that many difficulties...see it wasn't called the Blaxploitation genre back then. They were just called black films. They had demonstrated that these pictures could make money and anytime that happens there's people who want to hire people to do the work. The only comment that I can make about that whole genre is even though this was long after the civil rights movement there was still a lot of racism in the film industry. There weren't many black people behind the camera and most of the black actors were just happy to be working because there were so few roles for them at that time. That's why I'm very happy to have done Blaxploition films. It helped give black actors a chance to work, introduced black actors and black lifestyle into the mainstream film audience.
Gary: How did audiences as opposed to critics receive your films back in the seventies?
Jack: Oh they were both, Coffy and Foxy Brown major hits. Although often critics wouldn't even go to see them. Critics just put it down; it's a black movie. That's another bit of racism. For example one reviewer referred to a role Pam Grier played in one of my films as being an unsympathetic black chick. Can you imagine somebody saying unsympathetic Jewish chick? I mean it was just an example of racism that people weren't aware of. Actually it was unsympathetic black tart she was called. I mean nobody would say anything like that today.
Gary: Out of all the many things I've read about you what always impresses me the most is how fast you shoot your films. I read that Spiderbaby was shot in like twelve days. Foxy Brown was shot in seventeen days, one day ahead of schedule. Is there a method to this madness? Are you working with the same crew a lot?
Jack: I never worked with the same crew twice actually. I never had that choice. Planning, Just careful planning. We didn't run big overtime days like people normally do. We would run a ten to twelve-hour schedule. We would shoot very, very tight. With pictures like Foxy Brown I didn't have a choice of an editor. Back then producers hated directors and they thought directors weren't important. So I would shoot everything very tight and in way so that it could only be cut the way I wanted them to cut it. We had very little choices.
Gary: What was it like starting your career off working with Francis Ford Coppola and Roger Corman?
Jack: It was exciting. It was fun. There are always things going on when you're shooting half dozen pictures a year. Roger would say, let's make a movie about X, Y, Z and it would be in the theatre in four months. Roger was very, very good at getting the maximum out of very little means, which is something I learned from him. He was very good at making things look bigger than they really were and look like they had more to them.
Gary: Filmmaking is cheating.
Jack: Oh yeah definitely.
Gary: You're known as the man who discovered Pam Grier. She was in The Big Doll House and then you made Coffy and Foxy Brown. What did you see in Pam that made you realize her potential for being great in these films?
Jack: She had what you really look for, authority and presence. She just had a natural stability to carry off a role. She stands out. I saw enough in her that I figured I would take a chance. It paid off.
Gary: How has the positive endorsement of Quentin Tarantino affected your career?
Jack: Well it's been very helpful. Quentin is a very well known brand name and having his support has been very good. Over the last few years I've been writing new scripts doing the best work I've ever done. I'm not going back to what I used to do. That's what got me out of the business in the first place. I didn't want to make those kinds of pictures anymore and I was getting stereotyped. When you do something that is a success you are stereotyped into doing just that. People think that's all you do.
Gary: Cult movie fans although smaller audiences than the mainstream are so die hard and personal. Would you say that being revered as a cult director has helped or hurt the longevity of your career?
Jack: Well for many years I didn't have a career. Nobody knew my films and they were forgotten. Thanks to home video they have found an audience again. It's always fascinating to see them find a new generation of audiences.
Gary: I got to meet Sid Haig last August at the Chicago Comic Con. I was working with Artisan's promotion department on their stink bomb of a movie House of the Dead doing zombie make up. On my lunch I got to meet Sid who was doing promo for the House of a 1000 Corpses. So we were in two different houses. Man, he was the most gentle, polite guy. I couldn't believe he was the same guy playing all these degenerate characters all these years. Sid has appeared in nearly all of your films. How did you meet Sid and how had he found his way into so many of your pictures? Aside from the fact he kicks ass.
Jack: Sid was in my student film The Host. A teacher of mine named Dorothy at the Pasadena Playhouse knew him. Sid was actually playing Othello.
Gary: Sid playing Othello? I wonder if Rob Zombie knows about this?
Jack: Anyway she called me up and said hey he's really good. I met with Sid and I've been working with him ever since. Really I write parts for him.
Gray: Are you guys still friends now?
Jack: Oh yes.
Gary: After Switchblade Sisters you made one other film under a different name and then you stopped making films. I heard you went on to write a novel or something.
Jack: Yeah, I started working on a novel that was very ambitious and the more I worked on it the more ambitious it became. It turned into something that would have become a trilogy. And then stuff came up and I had to put it on the shelf because opportunities to do films came up. I had some stories I wanted to do that would only work on film. But I'm going to get back to it.
Gary: So this novel is Jack Hill's baby he's been nursing?
Jack: Yeah. But I've got some pictures I really want to do as films and once that's out of the way I'm going to get back to the novel.
Gary: I have read that you are looking to get into romantic comedies and break away from the whole mold that created Jack Hill the filmmaker.
Jack: Well yeah, I've been there, done that. I have a romantic comedy that has found financing in England. And I have another script a friend of mine did that I did a rewrite on that's been trying to find a home for twenty-five years and now it looks like it's going to get made.
Gary: What are the titles of the features?
Jack: The romantic comedy is called A Perfect Wife. And the other script is called Tangier, which is an action, adventure, comedy. It's kind of a take on the Warner Brothers movies of the forties.
Gary: Do you plan to direct these pictures?
Jack: Well A Perfect Wife is a low budget film so I have no problem doing that. Tangier is probably going to be a twenty five million dollar picture. Unless I do another picture first nobody is going to hand me that kind of money. But I'll be a co-producer on it.
Gary: Any advice you can give to the up and coming generation of independent filmmakers?
Jack: Pray for luck. My advice is forget it you don't have a chance. If you can't forget it and you won't, then you have to give it one thousand percent. You have to make it your life. Spiderbaby came together by shear luck. If it hadn't been for that I don't know if I would have done anything. If you keep playing you'll come up with that number.
Gary Schultz is an independent filmmaker in Chicago.
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