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Greg Lamberson: Part II

Greg Lamberson

If you missed it a few weeks back here’s part one of our Greg Lamberson interview.

You moved up to assistant director for Brain Damage, and Plutonium Baby, can you tell us about your time on these two movies?

GL: I wrote Slime City before I worked on I Was a Teenage Zombie, and I shot it two years later.  Shortly after wrapping Slime City, three of my friends, who worked on the film, were helping me edit it when we got a call from Scott Coulter, who did effects for Slime, Street Trash, and The Toxic Avenger.  He was doing effects on a film called Plutonium Baby, and the crew had walked off the set four days into a ten-day shoot.  We went up to Connecticut and finished the film, to a degree – the first cut came in at 38 minutes, so they had to hire us to shoot for an additional week.  The whole thing was a horrible mess, the perfect example of what happens when people who don’t even like horror movies make them to turn a buck or get ahead.   Don’t tell anyone, but I actually ghost directed about half of Plutonium Baby.

Brain Damage was a different matter altogether.  Frank Henenlotter wrote a great script, and he and his producing partner, Edgar Levans, did all of the legwork that needed to be done, and they raised $900,000 to make Frank’s follow up to Basket Case.  They rented three floors of a warehouse in Manhattan and converted one floor into a soundstage, another into the special effects lab, and the other into living quarters for the FX artists, who were all from out-of-town. We shot in 35mm for six weeks, and shot on a subway, and in a restaurant, and in the same junkyard featured in Street Trash. Frank knew what he was doing, and I learned a lot about real moviemaking.

Plutonium BabyYou describe Plutonium Baby as a cheese mess, I’m not familiar with this term, what does it mean?

GL: The film was cheesy, and it was a mess! I could list everything that’s wrong with it but that would take too long.

How successful do you think your time was on these movies?

GL: I took the production management gig on I Was a Teenage Zombie without knowing what a PM did, and the AD job on Brain Damage without knowing what Frank wanted from an AD, and by the end of each film I had my answer.  They were both important steps for me. I learned how not to do things on Teenage Zombie and Plutonium Baby, and how to do things on Brain Damage. Unfortunately, I shot Slime City before I worked on Brain Damage!

How would you describe your directing style?

GL: I’m not a flashy director any more than I am a flashy writer. On Slime City, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was limited by the need to shoot as little film as possible to keep costs down. On my second film, Undying Love, I had a better idea of what I was doing as a director, but it’s tough to do more than get minimal coverage when you’re shooting an entire feature on your two-week vacation from work. Naked Fear, which we shot on Hi 8 instead of 16m, is my simplest film, but it was the first time I felt like I was really accomplishing what I wanted as a filmmaker.  These three films, taken together, were the equivalent of a film school education for me. They all played as midnight movies and were released on VHS and DVD, and Slime City has developed a following in several countries around the world. I haven’t had the film career I wanted, but I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved.

My last film, Slime City Massacre, was shot in 2009 and released in 2011.  It’s by far my best directorial work, and I can say without boasting that it looks amazing for what it cost – $50,000, the same as the first film cost in 1986.  It’s a post-apocalyptic film with ruins, four possessed slime heads, mutant cannibals, and mercenaries.  The direction in that film, particularly my work with the actors, stands up to films that cost 100 times as much. Making it was a great experience.

Greg Lamberson on setIs directing a skill that can be learnt or is it a skill that you are born with?

GL: No one is born to do anything, except maybe Damien Thorn and Buffy Summers.  Anyone can learn a skill, but there are many skills involved in directing: there’s also temperament, vision, and the ability to oversee multiple people whom you’ve tasked with multiple responsibilities.  You need to be able to lead the team, to inspire them, without being a dictator, an egomaniac, or a pompous ass.  It’s a lot of work, especially if you’re also the writer and producer.

And so we come to Slime City. What was the inspiration for the film?

GL: I grew up in a small town and at the age of 17 moved to a sleazy neighbourhood in New York City.  The dorm for my college was in a YMCA that was also home to ‘retired’ pimps.  Me and my friends ate breakfast in a diner frequented by hookers and drug dealers getting off work, we passed Moonie cultists on the walk to school, and I worked in a movie theatre in Times Square, one block away from 42nd Street.  I wrote Slime City after one year of this.

And how would describe it for those who haven’t seen it?

GL: An innocent college student moves into an apartment building where the other tenants have been possessed by the spirits of cultists who committed suicide in the basement. The tenants ply him elixir and ‘Himalayan yoghurt’, which causes him to turn into a murderous slime-creature who preys on bums and prostitutes to revert to normal. He discovers that this is happening because the tenants have chosen him to become the reincarnation of their leader, Zachary. At the end, he confronts his virginal girlfriend, who chops him into pieces but the pieces keep coming after her.  I suppose the crawling brain is the highlight. The film has a few nice images and grit to it. The themes of sexual frustration and addiction manage to shine through all that slime.

The film is rather gory to say least, did you ever think you had stepped over the mark

GL: No, it’s all pretty silly.  I’m always pleasantly surprised when people tell me that it makes them uncomfortable – the fluids and everything.  I don’t take any of it seriously, it’s just meant to be fun, and on that score I think it holds up.  I don’t think it’s gory, either – more goopy.  Slime is much more fun than blood, but when you have one the other is likely to follow.

You shot the film for $50,000 over the course of two years, what challenges did this throw up?

GL: It’s always a challenge making a movie for no money.  We shot the whole thing in one month and rented a Steenbeck editing machine for $35,000.  We broke post-production to make Plutonium Baby, then broke again to go back to Plutonium Baby, then broke again to work on Brain Damage, then ran out of money.  At the end of the day we raised our finishing funds from a foreign sales rep named Alexander Beck, who licensed the film to Vipco in the UK as The Slime.

Slime CityHow easy was it for you to finance the movie? $50,000 probably wouldn’t scratch the surface of the catering budget of many films, but  it is no chump change either.

GL: It’s never easy raising money, and it was easier then than it is now, because the video rental business was huge.  I wanted to make Slime City in the summer of 1985, but we couldn’t raise a dime.  So my partners and I saved our money for a year, dragged in some friends and relatives, and raised the initial $35,000.  Frank Henenlotter and Edgar Levans steered us to their attorney, who drafted the partnership agreement and contracts for the cast and crew.

You made the film with friends, were they still your friends by the time you had finished shooting?

GL: At the end of shooting, yes…  My best friend was Peter Clark, who I attended SVA with.  He was a co-producer and the DP on the film, and we worked together on Teenage Zombie, Plutonium Baby and Brain Damage.  We did have a falling out after Brain Damage, and I had to finish Slime by myself.  We patched up our differences the night before I shot Undying Love, around 1991, and he died in 2000.  It’s true, filmmaking can be stressful and it can take a toll on personal relationships.

I take it you shot the film with the intention of making it a commercially viable product, so how did you go about shopping the film to distributors?

GL: Everything changed by the time we finished the film. The market had become glutted with shitty low budget films and the distributors started demanding bigger budgets and name actors.  We showed it to Vestron, and they were interested until they had their first major hit with Dirty Dancing.  We were lucky to get a deal with Camp Motion Pictures, which paid us an advance.  Then they went out of business owing us a lot of money.

What was the reaction on its initial release?

GL: The reaction at our midnight shows was great.  We played for five weekends in NYC, and people were laughing and screaming.  Camp got the video into a bunch of mom and pop stores.  It’s hard to say what the reaction was to the video; there was no internet then. Fangoria didn’t review us, Cinefantastique didn’t review us; a few fanzines did – some liked us, some didn’t.  But the film is still available, and those fanzines are long gone…If you do an online search for it now, you’ll find one appreciative review after another.   We sold the film to 8 countries, and it was re-released on VHS in 1989, then released on DVD in 2004, then re-released on DVD in 2009 as Greg Lamberson’s Slime City Grindhouse Collection, which came out while we were making the sequel.

Was there always the intention of filming a sequel?

GL: There was never any intention of making a sequel.  I wanted to do Johnny Gruesome next, then move onto big films, which never happened.  Alex Beck asked me to do a sequel, but I said no; there was no creative justification to do one back then, and the financial incentive certainly wasn’t there.

Why did it take so long for the sequel to arrive?

GL: Orson Welles used to say in TV commercials, “We will serve no wine before it’s time.”  2008 was Slime City’s 20th anniversary, and the cast and I did several screenings at film festivals and horror conventions in the US.  I came up with the idea of doing a follow-up which would serve as both a prequel and a sequel, like The Godfather II.  I wrote the screenplay in May of 2008, did a second draft that summer, and we shot the film in July of 2009, which seems pretty fast to me.

Slime City MassacreHow does Slime City Massacre develop the premise of Slime City?

GL: The flashbacks in SCM are derived from some exposition in the first film, and the elixir and the Himalayan yogurt are both there.  But this is a post-apocalyptic film which has as much in common with Beneath the Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man.  It’s also a celebration of all of the sleazy NYC horror films from the 80s, with references to Street Trash, Basket Case, and Troma.  It’s horror, sci-fi, and action – cult all the way.  I’m really pleased with the final product, and I hope people in the UK get to see it.

Did you feel the need to out-gross what you did in the original?

GL: No, I didn’t try.  I wanted the gags to be fun like in the original, and I tried to spin the original gags for the fans of the original, but the tone of this one is much more like that of a comic book, with bright colours.  I do think that the scenes which feature Debbie Rochon’s disembodied face floating in a bathtub full of slime, offering to blow her boyfriend, are the most outrageous and disturbing scenes I’ve shot.

With all the technological advances over the last twenty years, did you find the film easier to make? 

GL: As a producer, I have to worry about the technology, but as a director I don’t.  HD definitely made it possible to make a film in 2009 that would have cost twice as much in 1986; this is a really big, ambitious film for the budget.  We shot in two ruined buildings that were part of a grand train station abandoned in Buffalo 30 years ago; we had 100 extras, garbed in stylised clothing; four main characters wore appliances to become the Slime Heads; and several secondary slime heads as well.  We didn’t have electricity or running water at our location.  I brought a lot of actors to Buffalo from out of town, and they all had finite availability, so scheduling was a nightmare.  It was the most challenging shoot I’ve ever been on.

How on earth did Kealan Patrick Burke get involved?  Did you know each other before this?

GL: I hadn’t met Kealan, but we knew each other from message boards where horror authors gather.  He gave me a blurb for Johnny Gruesome, and somewhere along the line he mentioned that he’d done some acting in college and a bell went off in my head.  I wanted to cast him as the lead in a much bigger project, but none of my much bigger projects ever came to fruition.  When I wrote SCM, I sent him the script and said, “I can’t pay you anything but a per diem, but if you want either of the male leads, say the word.”  I’m fortunate that he said yes.  He was great fun to have on set, very professional, and I’m glad I got the chance to know him.  He won an award for his performance at the PollyGrind Film Festival and he deserved it.

How have the fans responded?

GL: Look, I made a film for a very specific audience – people who like a unique brand of cult films from a specific era, and who like their entertainment more twisted than the people who like the Scream and Final Destination films.  Those people know who they are.  I think it’s a smart film with terrific acting and excellent production values.  I’m glad I made it; I got to work with old friends and make new ones, like Debbie, Kealan, Lee Perkins and Brooke Lewis, and a host of people here in Buffalo, where I now live.

Have you ever had any odd requests from fans?

GL: Not really. Every once in a while someone will message me wanting to know if they can help me write my next film.  That’s kind of strange; I’m too stubborn to collaborate with anyone to that degree.

Greg Lamberson blue brainWhat is the best way for the folks in the UK to get a copy of your films?  

GL: The foreign sales market has dried up. I spoke to a distributor who said, “I could get you distribution in the UK.  There wouldn’t be any advance, and maybe we could move a couple of hundred copies just so you can say you had a release.”  In other words, “Somewhere along the line someone will make a few bucks off this, but it won’t be you or your investors.”  What a wonderful offer!  I said no.  SCM is a 2-disc DVD available from Media Blasters; it’s also available for streaming on PlayStation Network and Zune from XboxLive.  My other films are in the Grindhouse Collection, and are only available on DVD.

So what does the future hold for you?

GL: I have three books coming out in 2012.  My zombie novella Carnage Road in April; The Frenzy War in June; and Tortured Spirits in October.  I’m also working on a secret project for my publisher, Medallion Press, which is kind of revolutionary.  And I’m developing a new film to star Debbie called Scaremonger, but that’s down the road.  I’m also one of the directors of the Buffalo Screams Horror Film Festival.


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