Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

Indie My Ass by Dan Taylor

It’s almost Oscar night and I guess I’m supposed to be excited. Right? This is the night film fans, celebrity fashion-watchers and wannabe stalkers around this great world of ours will gather around the tube — once predicted to cause cinema’s death — and listen to every tidbit of mindless blather that comes out of the mouths of Joan & Melissa, Pat O’Brien (when did this asshole become a film expert?) and Steve Kmetko. Oh, and who can forget Todd Newton? Or host Whoopi Goldberg? Aigh!!!!

And by the time the evening’s finally over I’m sure to have heard how “romantic” Gwyneth Paltrow looks and how it’s sooooo great that she brought her proud poppa as her date to the big night. Hey Gwyneth, the last Oscar nominee to bring daddy-o to the big dance was Mira Sorvino. Better be careful or you’ll be co-starring with Chow Yuen Fat in a year or so. In fact, Jon Voight’s daughter is already gaining ground and will likely be attending the 2001 Oscars while you sit home comparing scripts with Marissa Tomei and the aforementioned Ms. Sorvino.
But all of the senseless bullshit about Gwyneth, Ben, Matt, Brad, Joseph, Kate and the rest of the cadre of overrated “stars” will pale in comparison to the talk about “indie.” Remember when the Oscars a few years ago were touted as the “Year of the Indie.” Well, the same crap’s being trotted out again this year as “indie” studios like Miramax spend, spend, spend to get the Academy to notice “little” pictures like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Sheesh, it did my heart good today to read a report concerning the possible “Academy backlash” over Miramax’s hype-job for their “little art film.” As much as it pains me to say this, I hope Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN walks away with everything it’s nominated for. Not that I liked, or even saw it — longtime readers will know that my ET-inspired Big Steve Boycott continues to this day. No, it’s just that the Oscars are all about Hollywood and the Hollywood pictures deserve to win. If films like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL or CENTRAL STATION start winning awards it just upsets the apple cart.

But before this degenerates into potentially libelous name-calling I want to get back to the topic at hand — the real world of “indie.” “Indie” isn’t Quentin Tarantino getting John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis to “slum it” in PULP FICTION. “Indie” isn’t even Wes Anderson’s RUSHMORE. And “indie” certainly isn’t Gwyneth, Ben, Jeffrey and Co. playing period dress-up in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. No, “indie” is peddling completed and nearly-completed projects on your Web site. “Indie” is taking jobs on other low-budget flicks to pay for the post-production your latest flick still needs. “Indie” is making flicks that might never see an audience bigger than SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE’s catering staff. “Indie” is people like Steve Williams and Brett Piper of Kinetic Image.

On thephone, Kinetic Image Producer and Unit Production Manager Steve Williams comes across like a rock and roll kinda guy. So I wasn’t shocked when he told me that he’d worked promoting rock bands in Florida and became friends with ex-Stooge/Destroy All Monsters guitarist Ron Ashton while working on HELLMASTER (aka THEM), a Detroit-filmed flick starring ER fave and Nike commercial star John Saxon. As for Saxon, Williams said the B-legend was “well read, nice, kinda quiet. Tolerant of a young director.”

Williams’ road to producing and promoting B flicks might not read as you’d expect. Brought up on a healthy diet of Universal monsters and drive-in movies — “I’d go and see the Hammer stuff and the Corman Poe cycle and then as it got into the 70s alot of stuff like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and DON’T LOOK IN THE ATTIC, DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, DON’T LOOK IN THE MENTAL HOSPITAL...” — he enrolled at Wright State University in Ohio after a stint in the Navy. Originally planning to study acting, he ended up in the film department after deciding he didn’t want to be a “song & dance” man.

He eventually discovered that his military upbringing and background had instilled something most college kids were lacking — organizational skills. “So, I went into production Management early on,” he told me. While at Wright State he met Jim Van Beeber (DEADBEAT AT DAWN), another future filmmaker who didn’t embrace the “political activist scene” that dominated Wright State’s film school at the time.

After some time off, Williams’ move to the Ohio State program landed him his first feature production job, thanks to meeting up with director/screenwriter Jay Woelfel and producer Dyrk Ashton. The film — BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR — was an ELM STREET-inspired horror flick released straight-to-video that garnered positive word-of-mouth as well as favorable comparison’s to Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD. Unfortunately, Woelfel’s post-DREAM’S DOOR output consists of a handful of generic straight-to-video efforts while Raimi has become one of Hollywood’s players.

With a credit as Unit Production Manager under his belt, aspiring directors like Eric Swelstad started contacting Williams about playing a larger role. A friend of Woelfel’s, Swelstad wanted to make FALLEN ANGELS (aka BLOOD CHURCH, Williams’ preferred title) and enlisted Williams as the flick’s producer. Written about in Gorezone at the time it was being made, FALLEN ANGELS (about a Satanic cult that has taken over a small town) remains unfinished to this day. The reason? “The director,” says Williams, “stole the film. It’s one of Linnea Quigley’s long lost films. She still looked real young and good.” Despite his best efforts to get the flick finished, completion deals with Jim (THE LOST EMPIRE) Wynorski and “the guys who did the WITCHCRAFT films” fell through because of what Williams describes as Swelstad’s ego. Today, Swelstad teaches in California while FALLEN ANGELS sits “under his bed” according to Williams.

Unfazed by this experience, the rock and roll producer moved onto the aforementioned HELLMASTER — where he worked as Second Assistant Director — with proto-punk guitar legend Ron Ashton and B-movie icon John Saxon. A move to Florida brought him in contact with William J. Links, a producer who’d lined up a “fish and tits” flick called THEY BITE which was going to be directed by Brett Piper and star Nick Baldasare, whom Williams had worked with on BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR. With Links and Piper having what Williams describes as “terrible problems,” he took on the role of Unit Production Manager. Which is...? “In the case of THEY BITE? Well, you do alot of logistics. Breaking the script down, scheduling; you make sure that everything’s there for that day.” THEY BITE is an excellent example of what low-budget indie cinema can be in the proper hands. With a plotline that borrows heavily from the likes of PIRANHA and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, Piper and the mostly-unknown cast (other than porn legend Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy and Charlie Burnett of ‘Miami Vice’ as skinflick writers) craft a flick that’s an enjoyable exploitation vehicle with moments of gentle parody. THEY BITE marked the beginning of Steve’s association with director/writer/effects man Piper, a relationship that continues several years later as they finish work on DRAINIAC! (a bit of Lovecraftian horror mixed with a pinch of THE EVIL DEAD) and begin raising funds for their next project, CYBERWOLF VERSUS THE LIVING DEAD.

As for their partnership and plans to take things further, Williams says, “Brett’s really talented and really good at what he does. This is what he does and focuses on all the time. This is it. I like the history of Hollywood, but I’m glad that Brett and I don’t have a desire to work out there. There’s no need for it.”

When I get — as he’s been described in other magazines, “animator-director-producer-writer-designer-painter-sculptor” — Brett Piper on the phone, it’s a couple hours after I’ve chatted with Steve Williams. In the interim the two have already chatted, which emphasizes the closeness of their working relationship. And while Williams is the rock and roll producer who embraces technology as a way of promoting their flicks and cultivating relationships, Piper is more the film lover devoted to doing things the way he — and heroes like Ray Harryhausen — did years ago.

Drainiac BabePiper’s career started in the early 80s back when “video was still king,” as Williams says. Of his dozen or so films you might be familiar with the ultra-low-budget MYSTERIOUS PLANET or A NYMPHOID BARBARIAN IN DINOSAUR HELL, a flick which seems to spool with some regularity on USA’s ‘Up All Night.’ One can only hope you’ll seek out some of his later efforts like THEY BITE and the nearly-completed DRAINIAC!

Like almost every director from the A-list on down, Piper’s introduction to moviemaking was “the standard story. I went out and bought a movie camera when I was 11, started making horror movies in my backyard, remade all the Hammer films and one thing led to another.” The first film he tried to remake was THE LOST WORLD, Irwin Allen’s 1962 version of the 1925 classic. “I made little clay dinosaurs and set them up around a lamp made of cypress trees, the kind of gnarled roots in the swamp, and I tried animating with the 8mm camera which had no single-frame release.” The results? “I don’t even remember — there was half-a-second of this weird blur. And that was my first adventure in animation.”

His attempts at emulating the monsters in 1962’s JACK THE GIANT KILLER would fare far better. At the age of nine Piper made copies in modeling clay and filmed them knocking over building blocks: “It was terrible, it was crude. But they were moving.” His love for stop-action animation took flight. As for today’s computer-generated effects, which he’s avoided using so far, the director feels they aren’t “entirely more realistic. I just think they’re realistic in a different way. They’re smoother and the movement is more fluid, but the figures don’t look as real or as solid. They tend to be over-animated, if that makes any sense. Like the dragon in DRAGONHEART. I loved Phil Tippit’s sculptures of the dragon, but I didn’t like the dragon in the film. Like most computer-generated images it didn’t seem to have any weight. And,” like the creatures added to the STAR WARS: SPECIAL EDITION, “it’s always moving, all the time, or else they’re not getting their money’s worth.”

After finishing high school without graduating — “I simply didn’t have enough credits to graduate; I wish I’d had a little guidance that said, ‘You don’t need high school, go learn how to make movies instead” — Piper dove headfirst into the world of moviemaking. The results were a 45-minute version of FRANKENSTEIN he made at 18 which has been destroyed and attempts at running around raising money for various projects. It would take him until the age of 27 before he made MYSTERIOUS PLANET, his first feature film.

By the time he got around to making THEY BITE Piper had a number of flicks under his belt, including: the $60,000 BATTLE FOR THE LOST PLANT and MUTANT WAR with Cameron Mitchell. Given the framework of HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP by “alleged producer” William J. Links (DEADTIME STORIES), Piper concocted THEY BITE’s clever plotline of an ichthyologist mixed up with a porn crew headed by director Mel Duncan (Nick Baldasare). At the mention of Links’ name the good-natured Piper bristles. “I say ‘alleged’ because I make the distinction between a guy who’s producing a movie and a guy who’s paying for one. [He] paid the bills and got in our faces every single day. You can’t believe what it was like dealing with this guy.” When pressed for details Piper accuses Links of getting the cast and crew tossed from their main location — a hotel — after the first night of shooting, dragging the director from a shoot to answer questions about payroll, using the camera truck and driver to purchase cigars, scheduling the wrong locale for the film’s finale and other screwups. “I have very bad feelings about [THEY BITE] because it was such an awful experience and it’s nowhere near as good as it could’ve been.”

Drainiac DudePiper seems in much better spirits when the topic rolls around to DRAINIAC!, the new film he’s making with Williams for Kinetic Image. I remarked that I’d seen a 15-minute clip of the flick and got the feel of both Raimi’s original THE EVIL DEAD and the film-within-a-film from Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS. “I was a little bit after an EVIL DEAD feel, although it’s not that apparent in the rest of the movie. It was sort of an EVIL DEAD with an attempt to make a 90s version of a Hammer film, in the sense that there isn’t that much blood and there isn’t that much violence and I’m trying to create a spooky mood.”

When I press the self-effacing Piper to name his favorite of his own flicks, he immediately downplays his filmography. “Some of my movies legitimately suck and I’m suspicious of people who say that they don’t. The children’s film THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN SINBAD,” a 45-minute animated piece with narration by Roddy McDowell, “I guess, is my favorite. But it’s a freak, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the collection.”

With work almost complete on DRAINIAC! — both Williams and Piper have been ponying up their own cash for the flick’s post-production work — Kinetic Image has started turning its collective attention to their next project, the wonderfully-named CYBERWOLF VS. THE LIVING DEAD. And, in the grand tradition of New World and Empire, they already have a poster (below). When I ask Piper if he’s able to live on what he makes directing, he pauses before he answers. “If I could make a movie a year I’d be all set. But it takes me two or three years to raise the money to do a film. So there’s always other [film] jobs in the meantime. It’s a bitch of a business. Sometimes it makes sense to me that when you reach the top you get so damn much money. It’s nice that somebody gets the winning lottery ticket every once in a while.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if once, just once, the winning lottery ticket went to the guys making CYBERWOLF VS. THE LIVING DEAD and not the likes of faux indies like Miramax? Call me crazy, but I’d love to see that day.

For more on Kinetic Image, check out their site at www.kineticimage.com. Producer Steve Williams said he’d welcome any visitors and questions from our readers.

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