Back in ought-seven, I was lucky enough to get the inside scoop on a little flick called GIMME SKELTER, a micro-budget thriller unlike anything I’d seen before. Directed by Scott Phillips, writer of cult kung-fu road flick DRIVE and writer/director of the low-bud zombie classic STINK OF FLESH, SKELTER tells the offbeat tale of a cadre of disillusioned maniacs who are led to a small New Mexico town by their Manson-esque leader in order to ‘Out-Charlie’ Charlie himself and slaughter the whole town in one night. Read on for the interview I conducted with Scott and order GIMME SKELTER on AMAZON or pick up the new e-book version of the original screenplay by Scott S. Phillips and featuring additional materials by yours truly!
In my original review I called it “a glorious Go-Go-Frug of a meditation on moral hypocrisy, the cult of personality and the true meaning of ‘The Manson Family Christmas Special’.”
Read on for the interview with Scott Phillips…
SCOTT PHILLIPS – WRITER/DIRECTOR/EDITOR ‘GIMME SKELTER’
Scott Phillips 101 – How did you get your start in the industry? Can you give us an overview of your eclectic career?
Well, I started out making shorts on Super-8mm when I was a kid, like 8 years old. First one I ever made was a stop-motion thing starring my Mego STAR TREK guys, Kirk and Spock vs a Klingon in my backyard. Originally I wanted to be an animator, like Ray Harryhausen, but as things went on I became more interested in makeup effects and concentrated on that. I never got laid as a teenager because I was too busy making myself up as Dr. Zaius to waste time on the ladies.
I’m not sure exactly what led me to do it, but I wrote my first feature-length screenplay when I was 18. It was terrible, this lame comedy basically featuring me and my friends having wish-fulfillment adventures (like hanging out with the Ramones), but it was a full-length script and the act of writing it kinda made me realize what I really wanted to do. The next year, I had my first “real” movie job, as an extra on John Milius’ RED DAWN — you can even spot me in the movie if you look fast. I worked as a P.A. on another flick that was shot in New Mexico a year later, it was called ANIMAL BEHAVIOR. The effects guy offered me a job in L.A. but at the time I had this impression of Los Angeles being a sort of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK apocalyptic landscape and chickened out, although I wanted to take him up on it very badly.
I spent the next few years writing scripts, on my own and with my buddy John Howard (an underground comic artist, famous for Last Gasp’s HORNY BIKER SLUT COMIX). One of those is possibly going into production soon, it’s called TRASH QUEEN. My friend Carlos Batts is gonna direct, he’s an amazing photographer and has a very twisted vision. In 1993 I opened a video store called “Wavy Brain” that specialized in cult movies, Hong Kong action and the like. After running the place for a year, I decided it was time to either shit or get off the pot with the filmmaking thing, so I sold the store, wrote a script called ROAD TO RUIN, and moved to L.A. To my amazement, rather than looking like Snake Plissken would hang out there, L.A. looks a lot like parts of Albuquerque. Incredibly, through a friend I wound up renting a room from Linnea Quigley. My pal Kenneth J. Hall took me around town and got me a job with John Carl Buechler, and I wound up as a makeup effects assistant on the second remake of NOT OF THIS EARTH and BEASTMASTER 3. Meanwhile, Linnea introduced me to Craig Hamann, who read ROAD TO RUIN and showed it to his manager, Cathryn Jaymes. She dug it and signed me and the next thing I knew she had sold the script. It became DRIVE, starring Mark Dacascos, Kadeem Hardison and Brittany Murphy.
Man, I’m rambling on here so I’ll try to keep it short — from there on, I worked on lots of stuff that never got produced, including a sequel to the live-action FIST OF THE NORTH STAR movie, a Steven Seagal flick, various Kung Fu epics, and whatnot. Eventually, I got what was supposed to be my “big break,” writing a comedy feature for Kelsey Grammer’s production company at Paramount. It was called RAMP RATS and to this day I firmly believe it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever written but I wound up getting fired and the project died. After that, I was so soured on the Hollywood thing that I basically gave up for awhile, except to write a couple flicks for Full Moon Entertainment. Eventually, my girlfriend at the time, Shannon Hale, convinced me to make a short film just for fun and we made a cheesy thing called SCIENCE BASTARD. It premiered at a local sci fi convention, where it was seen by a fellow named Gordon Garb, who offered to invest in a feature, and that’s what led to THE STINK OF FLESH. I still keep my hand in the screenwriting game, but I’d like to think I’m smarter now about my outlook/approach/goals — but if I were really smart I’d go get a job at the car wash and forget all this movie-making crap.
Can you describe the genesis of GIMME SKELTER? Where did the idea come from? How did it develop?
For years I’d had this idea bouncing around my head about the babies born to the Manson Family (and there were apparently plenty), but I was never sure if it was a horror movie or an Adam Sandler movie. Then Scott Spiegel, Eli Roth and Boaz Yakin saw THE STINK OF FLESH and they all really liked it. Scott asked me to pitch a project to Raw Nerve (their production company) and since I didn’t have another horror idea at the time I went “I guess that Manson thing is a horror flick!” I pitched it to Boaz in October of 2004 and he liked it, but Raw Nerve was going through some hassles at the time and it never went beyond that (they were also interested in distributing STINK, but that didn’t happen either). I went ahead and wrote the script because I really liked the idea and figured it was something else I could make cheaply, like STINK. Along the way, some folks at another production company in L.A. saw STINK and got in touch with me about writing and directing a movie for them. They read SKELTER and wanted to do it to the tune of a hundred thousand bucks, but they wanted changes to the script that I didn’t agree with so I turned the offer down.
The film seems to be influenced by the ‘grindhouse/drive-in’ style exploitation films of the 70’s. What are some of the specific influences and reference points in the film?
As far as I can remember, the only honest-to-God specific references in SKELTER are the lighting of the night scenes, which were heavily influenced by the look of Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM — I love the way that movie is very dark with pools of light (actually, Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE was also an influence in terms of the lighting for the same reason), and the other specific reference is Phillip’s roll of toilet paper, that’s a direct reference to Kris Kristofferson in Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. Oh, wait, I’m forgetting Elske McCain’s character, “Erika,” who was intended as a sort of Russ Meyer girl when I was writing the script. But I basically grew up in movie theaters and drive-ins so the movies of that era are very much in my mind all the time and I think they tend to inform my work quite a bit, whether consciously or not. For instance, the scene where Erika pulls the knucks feels very Jack Hill-esque to me, although I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it or when we shot it. The funny part is, I didn’t plan on Pajamas being such a nod to Russ Meyer (and particularly Tura Satana), but Sarah Turner just exudes that kind of attitude. But I’m definitely influenced by a lot of 70s-era movies, from the grindhouse-type stuff to things like NETWORK and MEAN STREETS.
I know you are also a big music lover. The whole film feels as though it could have been written to the early blues-rock strains of The Rolling Stones, T-Rex, Zeppelin, et al. Were there any specific musical influences that informed your writing or directing?
The one specific song that was kickin’ around my head during the writing of SKELTER was “Fox on the Run” by Sweet — but to be honest, I wanna use “Fox on the Run” in EVERY movie I make so I’m not sure that counts. I knew I wanted a certain style to different parts of the movie, though — something that could be mistaken for late-60s early-70s rock in the opening, then some 80s-era metal for the strip club, and obviously something very rooted in that late-60s psychedelic sound for the credits sequence. Don Adams (my music supervisor) did a great job making that happen, too — from the country-tinged Angry Johnny & the Killbillies stuff to the poppier songs to the throbbing Sabbath-esque songs by Black Maria that the killers listen to in their van. It had to be certain types of music for certain characters — in fact, I remember when I asked Don why he hadn’t placed a song over the scene where Porter (Gunnar Hansen) tries to convince his daughter (Kristin Hansen) not to leave, and Don said “What would Gunnar be listening to, Bread?”
I’ve been very lucky in both SKELTER and THE STINK OF FLESH to have some great bands and musicians contributing their work to the cause, and again, that’s largely Don’s doing — he has an amazing ear for cool tunes, and the ability to sweet-talk bands. That said, however, I would love to be able to afford not only “Fox on the Run” (because goddamn do I love the Sweet) but maybe some AC/DC, KISS, Ramones, Iggy and the Stooges, Stones, Sabbath, Grand Funk, the Guess Who… but I’d like to pair ’em up with the unsigned and/or little-known bands and make a nice mix of things.
How did you assemble the remarkable cast and what led to the involvement of such great ‘B-movie all-stars as: Elske McCain, Trent Haaga, Kenneth J Hall and the legendary Gunnar Hansen?
I wrote several of the roles with the actors in mind, at least as far as Billy, Mark, Kurly, Gunnar, Kristin, Bob Vardeman and Trent were concerned, but that still left a lot of roles to fill. Gunnar became involved because his niece Kristin was in THE STINK OF FLESH, which he liked. He offered to appear in the next flick if I’d write some scenes for he and Kristin to do together, so he really did us a gigantic favor by doing the movie (in fact, he signed a photo for me that says “Don’t forget, I own your soul!”). Elske I had met at Tromadance NM, and she read over the phone for Erika. Ken Hall has been a good pal for many years now, and he was kind enough to fill in for Scott Spiegel, who was originally cast as Calver Weems but had to drop out at the last minute. I called Ken and he basically just jumped on a plane and came to Albuquerque for a day. Of course, he did have a partially-nude Ashley Bryce writhing on top of him, so that was kind of like being paid. Harry O. Morris is a really well-known artist, he’s done book covers for Richard Matheson and the like, and when I was trying to figure out how to cast Claymore, I turned to my girlfriend Jen and said “What about Harry?” She told me to call him, we went to his house and read him, and he kicks a bunch of ass in a difficult role. And I have to mention the amazing Aaron Work, who played Deputy Lester. He’s been in several indie flicks but he needs to be a mega-star, he’s terrific with any material you give him.
In addition to the abovementioned cast, and your bevy of usual background players, GIMME SKELTER features a cadre of young first-time actresses as the female killers. How did you find these ladies and how would you describe their performances?
We auditioned a handful of actresses for the killers, but Ashley Bryce and Sarah Turner were the first to read for their respective roles (Little Delilah and Pajamas), and even though I read a couple other actresses afterwards, I knew Ashley and Sarah were it. Finding Brass and Jonda was a little tougher, but Associate Producer Peter Fishburn brought us a bunch of people he knew — he found Jillian Parry (Jonda), Jaymi Lynn McNulty (Brass), and Kell Niedbala, who read for Pajamas, initially. I was sold on Sarah for that role, but Kell was so good I had to give her something to do, so I cast her as Trish the bartender. I think all the ladies bring something unique to their roles — Ashley is fierce as Delilah, I actually thought she was mad at me on the set but she was just really into the role. And of course Sarah is insane, just frightening as hell. Jaymi I knew was it for Brass the minute I saw her, I remember opening the door, looking at her, and thinking “Sweet Jesus, please let this girl be able to deliver dialogue.” She brings an oddball vulnerability to Brass that the part absolutely needed in order to work.
Speaking of the usual background players, can you shed some love on the EDP stock players that give your films such depth of character?
Well, I can’t make a movie without Bob Vardeman. He’s my good luck charm. I’ll find something for him to do in every movie I make, as long as he’s willing. I also very much enjoy making Devin O’Leary perform whatever crazy antics I can think up for him — I’ve known Devin for years and years and he’s perfectly willing to do almost anything in a movie. I think he once told me he’d do anything short of eating feces from a toilet. Jeremy Owen (Stew) is one hell of an actor who has been underused, most of the time. If I had known how good he was I would’ve given him more to do in THE STINK OF FLESH (he was the big “Fulci Zombie” that Matool fights). Chris Vardeman, Bob’s son, is always fun to put in these things, too. He would’ve had another scene in SKELTER but he had a Spanish final the next day and couldn’t stay up late enough to shoot. Kevin Santry is Billy’s boss at his day job and I always like putting him into the flicks, too. He’s actually a very good actor, although he never believes it when you tell him that.
Speaking of the depth of characters… The characters in your films are always imbued with a wealth of humanizing quirks and eccentricities. How much of that is scripted and how much is contributed by the performers or coordinated during filming?
I’d say most of it is scripted, although I’m always happy when an actor brings something new to the table. Aaron Work really spiced up Deputy Lester, for instance. Kurly’s really good at inventing things on the set, and he gives a tremendous amount of thought to his characters and tries to bring them to life beyond what’s been written for him. Gunnar’s cat speech in SKELTER was only about three lines in the script, but he asked me if he could riff on it and it wound up being one of my favorite things in the movie. That’s the great thing about being in a position of control on these low-budget movies — there’s a ton of collaboration that happens, but I’m always able to make the final decision as to whether or not it serves the story and characters, which isn’t the case when someone else is calling the shots. Bottom line, I think my character stuff is my strongest asset, but they don’t become fully realized until the actor brings his own spin to it.
Do you consider yourself a technical director or an ‘actor’s director’?
Jeez, I’m not even sure I’m comfortable calling myself a director yet, but if I had to choose, I’d say I’m more of an “actor’s director,” or at least that’s what I’d like to be eventually. I’d have to say, though, that I do most of my directing in the screenwriting phase. Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS) once said that if you’ve done your work on the script and you cast the right actors, your job as director is basically to be a fun guy to hang out with, and I completely agree with that. I’m not the sort of director who sits there and says “Okay, in this scene you’re coming from a place inside where your angst over your mother abandoning you is swirling like a smelly toilet…” That’s crazy, in my experience most actors only need to hear “A little less” or “A little more.” A big revelation for me as to how much input a good actor needs came on THE STINK OF FLESH when Kristin Hansen was asking me about her character, Sassy, and I told her that when Sassy says she lived in an apartment, she means a “special” apartment, like a mental home. That was all it took and Kristin ran with it. One of the great “directing” stories was Francois Truffaut — I think on DAY FOR NIGHT — when an actress was supposed to cross the street and she asked Truffaut what her motivation was. He said “Try not to get run over.”
My big dream for my next movie is that I’ll have the luxury of some rehearsal time, and a camera operator so I don’t have to be setting up shots when I’d really like to be working with the actors. We had zero rehearsal on SKELTER, some of the actors rehearsed on their own but essentially we were shooting rehearsals. There are scenes I’m reasonably satisfied with but if we’d only had another hour or two I think those scenes could’ve really kicked ass, y’know? So I’m gonna work hard to build in some rehearsals on the next flick.
There is a pronounced difference in the execution (pardon the horrific pun) of the individual murder scenes. Was there a conscious effort to pay homage to the styles of iconic directors like Hitchcock, Carpenter and Argento?
I wish I could say that I was trying to emulate those folks, but the truth is, we were on such a tight schedule that most of the murder scenes were shot very frantically, just in an attempt to get all the coverage we needed. Plus I did most of the makeup effects, and while there’s nothing extensive, it still took time away from shooting, which meant we were working things even tighter. During the gas station sequence, we actually had to shut down for about an hour and a half because some drunk nutjob was threatening to shoot out our lights — he even set up a light of his own so he could aim better. Once the cops showed up, they smoothed things over but told us we had to be done with our exteriors within something like an hour, so that put a crazy rush on a tough sequence. We did set out to have a slightly different feel to the various scenes, however.
How influential were newer genre films and the proliferation of ultraviolent and excessively gory films from the likes of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth?
Not at all, really. THE DEVIL’S REJECTS was an influence in the color correction phase, but that’s about it. I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want SKELTER to be about knives going into flesh, and so you don’t see much of that in the movie. I felt like having elaborate, show-stopping makeup fx gags would’ve tended to dehumanize the characters and make the murders more about the effect. I did want the murders to feel very brutal, though, and overall I think that comes across — or at least I hope it does.
How does GIMME SKELTER compare to your previous films, specifically STINK OF FLESH?
I like STINK but I think SKELTER is more of a “real movie” in terms of execution and feel. I mean, we’ve all learned a lot since STINK and it shows. I also think I improved as an editor on this project. And across the board, the performances in SKELTER are more consistently solid, and I’d like to think that some of that comes from getting a little better as a director, although most of it is just knowing who to cast. The script is probably a little more mature, too — STINK is, I think, a pretty intelligent little movie, but it’s more rooted in exploitation cinema than SKELTER’s script is.
I always try to be realistic about this stuff, though, and the truth is, I’d say that to probably 95% of the movie-watching population of the world (maybe 98%), the stuff we make is not looked at as “real movies.” That’s the frustration of working on such low budgets — there’s a huge part of the audience that can’t see past the lack of polish to realize that there’s a real script there, real ideas.
What was the significance of characters in the film watching the quirky Wayne Harold flick TOWNIES?
Actually, the original idea was that EVERYONE was gonna be watching TOWNIES — any scene that had a TV or the potential for a TV would have TOWNIES playing, day and night. I don’t really know why, I just thought it would add an element of weirdness, but ultimately it wound up being too much of a hassle to coordinate so I tossed it out. I think it works better that just Chris (Robert Paul Medrano) is watching it. I love TOWNIES, though, and recommend that everyone buy a copy.
What was the final cost on GIMME SKELTER?
That is entirely mind-boggling to anyone who has seen the film. It easily looks ten times more expensive. What are some of the real difficulties in working with a small budget?
Well, I’m fond of telling people that these movies don’t happen because we have money or time, they exist through sheer force of will. Because when you have five grand and 12 or 16 days to shoot a movie (especially something with as many characters as SKELTER), you have to want to see the goddamn movie burst forth into the world and not be thinking about how it’s gonna make your career or put money in your pocket — it’s about telling a story you want to tell, there’s no other reason to put yourself through it. That said, I do enjoy the process, but it’s pretty miserable and soul-crushing sometimes. The difficulties are many and varied. There’s just no money for certain equipment, which is why there are shaky wheelchair shots in SKELTER instead of nice smooth dolly or jib shots. In one case, I wanted a crane shot where the camera would rise up from behind the killers’ van to reveal Brass and Todd walking towards it, but of course we had no crane — so I parked my car behind the van, then stuck Jeremy Owen (who is a very big guy) on the ground holding the camera while I hunkered down on the roof of my car. On “action,” Jeremy slowly rose up with the camera, then handed it off to me and I stood up. It actually looked pretty good but for reasons of timing I wound up cutting the shot. Craig Butler, who did the color correction and is also a writer/director (his feature LAND OF ENTRAPMENT will be premiering soon), has built a dolly that he’s close to perfecting and we’ll be using it on my next flick (and unless he wises up, Craig will also be my camera operator).
But I’d say the biggest difficulty is just constantly being under the gun to get everything shot on time, it really forces you to compromise what you’re trying to capture. Plus you don’t always have the time or access to locations to prep in advance — we lost so much time in having to have cast and crew stand around while we laid plastic and a false layer of carpet in the houses where kills were happening (to avoid drenching the real carpet with fake blood). It’s essentially like re-carpeting a room and is very time consuming. We had to do it at Deputy Lester’s house and by the time we got around to shooting the big dialogue scene, we had 45 minutes left before we had to be out of the location. It meant shooting something like 5 or 6 pages of dialogue — spoken by six characters, meaning a lot of coverage — in a ridiculously short amount of time. Fortunately, I inadvertently covered my ass on that at least a little bit because of the approach I took to shooting the movie. I shot most of the “townsfolk” scenes with the camera locked down and stable, while I shot the killer scenes handheld, then as the killers and townsfolk collide, things become more handheld and chaotic in general — that meant I was shooting that dialogue scene handheld and I could get away with certain things in terms of coverage that I couldn’t have if we’d been shooting that stuff locked down. It’s far from perfect and I would’ve loved to have more time to work on performances there, but it works and the actors still delivered.
What are some of the advantages of the micro-budget?
The biggest advantage is having control over your movie — at least in terms of telling the story you want to tell.
What are some of the biggest differences in creating your own film vs. scriptwriting for hire?
It’s funny, I made one attempt at being a “director-for-hire” on a $10,000 movie — it was an experiment to see if we could work for someone else and give our people a paycheck. It also wound up being a complete failure, at least on our end. The producer essentially sabotaged the movie from the outset by going behind my back and telling the writer not to worry about writing for the budget, so we got the script like, three weeks before the start of shooting and it was full of exploding cars and minefields and crazy shit that we might have been able to pull off with more prep time, but under the circumstances there was no way. Billy Garberina and I wound up rewriting scenes on the fly, sometimes scrawling stuff on notebook paper, ripping it out and handing it to the actors to pass around moments before we’d shoot it. Plus the producer was insisting on all kinds of ridiculous crap that ate money needlessly and generally made it impossible to shoot a decent movie. I will say, the version we delivered was godawful but entertaining and made sense; the final version, after the producer shot new scenes and cut a bunch of our stuff, is a complete train wreck. I took my name off the thing and basically nobody made any money except the producer. It taught me a valuable lesson about maintaining control, which is one reason I turned down that hundred thousand dollar offer for SKELTER — I knew that the minute I accepted it, I’d be sliding downhill and wind up with a movie I wasn’t happy with.
To me, directing is too much work and you have to get up too early in the morning to wind up making somebody else’s version of your movie. I know people who have gotten notes from the producer’s girlfriend, for Christ’s sake. My approach nowadays is that when I’m hired as a screenwriter, I’m an employee and it’s my job to deliver whatever they want, even if I don’t agree with some of that. But if I’m directing, I want to call the shots, I don’t want to work for anybody and have them tell me how it’s gonna be. That probably means I’ll never have any real success — at least monetarily — but I can assure you, the pain of making a shitty movie lasts a lot longer than the paycheck. It would be a beautiful world if I could have control and still make some money, though.
Now comes the James Lipton, ‘Bouillon de Culture’ Bernard Pivot le blabbidy si vous plah questions… What is your stimulant of choice?
Does alcohol count as a stimulant? If so, Guinness and Jack Daniels (but not at the same time). And Krispy Kreme donuts.
Who/what are some of your favorite directors/films?
That’s a long list you’re asking for, my friend. Favorite directors: I love John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Francois Truffaut, John Cassavetes, Howard Hawks, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Jean-Pierre Melville, Kevin Smith, Jack Hill, Russ Meyer, the Coen Brothers, George Romero, Jim Jarmusch, Walter Hill, William Castle, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, Robert Altman… yeesh, I could probably go on and on. Some of my favorite movies are HALLOWEEN (the original), MEAN STREETS, BAND OF OUTSIDERS, THE GRADUATE, ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, RIO BRAVO, Apocalypse NOW, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE 400 BLOWS, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, SWINGERS, MAGNOLIA, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, MILLER’S CROSSING… y’know, I could give you a list a day and it would be different every day.
What are your Top 5 Desert Island DVD’s (Discs you couldn’t live without)and why?
This is probably the hardest question to answer. Does the Criterion John Cassavetes box set count as one disc? Lemme see, I’d say THE GRADUATE because it’s one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen, from the way it’s shot to the acting to the script to the editing to the music. Just terrific. I’d probably take ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL because it’s a movie that quite literally changed my life, as goofy as that sounds. Hearing and seeing the Ramones for the first time kind of altered my outlook on the whole damn world. And as much as I love HALLOWEEN and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and THE FOG and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, I’d probably take Carpenter’s version of THE THING because it’s just so goddamn good. I’d like to have that fancy special edition DAWN OF THE DEAD (again, the original) that Anchor Bay released awhile back because it’s one of the movies that made me who I am. What is that, four? If I couldn’t have the Cassavetes box set, hmm… I might have to go for FOLLOW THE FLEET, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because I love their movies and it would go great with ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. But what about JAWS? Or THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY? Man, I could never deal with being stranded on a desert island, unless it was like LOST and was populated with cute chicks in tank tops.
Many thanks for sitting down with me today, Scott Phillips, writer/director/editor/fx artiste/man of action… and best of luck with GIMME SKELTER.
Any time, Axel. Thanks for helping us put the word out on the film.