October 31, 2017 Interview – George Mihalka
If one thing is certain in life, it is to expect the unexpected. There are mounds of experiences to be had, and just when you think you know it all, reality smacks you right in the face. Such is the life of Hungarian-born Canadian Filmmaker George Mihalka, who relishes for the chance to take on a new challenge each time he goes behind the lens.
Known affectionately within the Horror community for his 1981 film My Bloody Valentine, Mihalka has spent much of his career exploring a variety of genres opposed to playing it safe. Filming around the world, through the years Mihalka has mounted a world of experience, but still has plenty to learn. Recently we sat down with Mihalka to talk his career in film, the crazy story behind My Bloody Valentine, the potential of revitalizing his 1985 film The Blue Man, future projects, and more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in film professionally for over 35 years now. From Horror favorites like 1981’s My Bloody Valentine to your later works including the 2014 series 24 Hour Rental, what has your vast experience in cinema been like?
George Mihalka – Well, you know, it’s been an interesting ride, an interesting adventure. I always try to do as many different genres and different styles as possible. For me, half the fun has always been doing something different. After I did My Bloody Valentine, for instance, I did a French language Comedy called Scandale (1982) just to experiment and do something different.
After that, I went into advertising for a few years and did television commercials. Then I did The Blue Man, aka Eternal Evil (1985), which played in a retrospective at Fantasia back in July. Then I went off and worked in France on a Medieval action television series called William Tell for a few years. It’s been really a lot of fun because I got a chance to visit just about every country—European country, anyway. I’ve shot in Russia, France, Spain, England, the United States, Hungary… name it and I’ve probably shot there at one point or another. I guess that’s what I like about it. It’s always different, keeps me young, keeps me moving. I always have to invent something new or invent another look at a different style of genre or show.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it has been a very culturally enlightening experience as well, traveling as much as you have.
George Mihalka – Yes, it has. Obviously shooting in all those different cultures. Also, the opportunity to be able to do it both in French and in English. For ten years, in the late ‘90s to the mid-2000s, I was shooting just about exclusively in French. So it’s an interesting world. Then I got back and started doing television and did a youth comedy.
CrypticRock.com – Very cool. Looking back, you have worked in various genres from Horror to Comedy. What have you learned from the different genres you have worked in?
George Mihalka – That I’m still learning how to make films (laughs). You know, it’s a funny thing about filmmaking, you always think you know just about everything, and you’ve done just about everything ever, and then you realize with your next project, “Holy hell, I haven’t had this challenge yet!” So, I think what I’ve learned is never to assume I know everything. Even, in all modesty, it’s been a pretty extensive, long-running career and I’m very fortunate. Like I said, never ever assume you know what you’re doing until you’ve studied everything, because everything is different and everything is new, and every day is new. You have to be on your toes and smart about it. That’s what I’ve learned over all those years (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – It is a good lesson to learn. Something that we could apply to all our lives no matter what field we work in. You never really know everything. There is always something new to learn.
George Mihalka – You know, show me a man who thinks he knows everything and I’ll show you a fool. That’s been it for me. It’s a lesson in humility every time.
CrypticRock.com – Yes. Now, one of your most adored films, My Bloody Valentine, celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. This is a film that had commercial success, and has since become a classic among Horror fans. What was it like working on that film?
George Mihalka – That was a perfect example of youthful arrogant overconfidence, in the sense that when we started that movie—I got onto that movie a little bit laterally, shall we say. I did my first feature film, a little Comedy called Pick-up Summer (1980), that sold extremely well around the world and it got the attention of John Dunning and André Link, who are basically Canada’s Roger Corman. John and André started off the career of David Cronenberg, of Ivan Reitman, just to name a couple, myself included. John and André approached me for a two picture deal and I was actually quite in the Comedy world at the time.
My little Comedy made a lot of money, I knew quite a few people in the Comedy writing world including National Lampoon, so John and Andre hired me to work with some writers from the National Lampoon to create a medical Comedy. We had a bit of a problem delivering the screenplay, one of our writers got very ill, and things weren’t happening at the time in the way it should have, so John said, “I would like to make your second movie first for us.” This was July, 36 years, and he pulled out a one-page concept called My Bloody Valentine and said, “If you like it we’ll make this one.” He told me, “You can direct it, and you’ll work with a writer, but it’s going to have to be a quick job because this deal means we have to have this movie in the theater for February 14th, which means it needs to be finished by the first week in January.” In those days, for a 1,200 print release, which was a giant release for a Horror film, you needed a month to prepare all the prints that they would send out. Basically, it left us five and a half months to write the screenplay, shoot, edit, sound mix, color correct, negative cut the movie, and get it out in time. So, it became quite the adventure.
While John Beaird was writing the movie, we kind of fleshed out the story, myself and my line producing partner Bob Presner, took off to Nova Scotia because we knew there would be coal mines over there. We knew a couple of these coal mines were starting to shut down, so we were hoping and praying we’d find one. We found the coal mine, we found the location. I went back, worked with John Beaird writing to the location at that point, and then we went out and shot it.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like there was a lot going on at once.
George Mihalka – Obviously, again, we only became aware there were technical problems at the last minute because people wanted us so badly in the mine they forgot to tell us a couple little things like, “You can’t use movie lights in the mine.” Because it all has to be spark free safety lighting equipment, and nothing could be more than 50 Watts. You know what a 50 Watt light bulb does, right? Nothing. You could barely read a book with a 50 Watt light bulb if it’s close to it.
So anyway, we ended up having to redo our whole approach. We had to find the fastest lenses that were available at the time for our cameras. We were using the same kind of lenses that were used on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Then that wasn’t enough, so then we had to end up sending our undeveloped negatives to New York where one lab in all of North America at the time could enhance the sensitivity of the film and push the film so that the low-light shooting that we were doing could come out properly.
Then, obviously, we had a lot of problems in the mine itself, because the mine is 900 feet underground, then it went out a couple of miles underneath the ocean. Just to bring the crew down took 45 minutes down the elevators, and 45 minutes to bring them back up again. Then 45 minutes at lunchtime, and 45 minutes back again. We lost a lot of time on that and obviously with the very finicky lighting we had. Then there was something called methane build-up. When you had a very humid or cloudy day, vents in the mine wouldn’t be working as easily and methane would build-up in the mine and we would evacuate it. We had Tom Burman doing the make-up, from L.A., and the special effects, and just importing all those dead bodies and things through customs became a bit of a nightmare. What’s in the box? Oh, some very lifelike human heart replicas. All of that made it a very exciting thing.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it was. Tell us a little more about the work put into the special effects.
George Mihalka – Obviously, we were working with two editors around the clock to get that done. The effects looked great and everything was fantastic. It was all the most state-of-the-art special effects you could imagine. It was basically the height of practical special effects magic. It was the point where you could do stuff you could never do before, and do it in one shot. We were all really proud of that.
When we got the final cut of the film and we sent it down to Los Angeles to Paramount and to the Motion Picture Association of America to get our rating, we were told that this is an X-rated movie! Just about everything over the next two weeks while we were trying to do the sound mix, every day we were asked to cut out more and more. I would say this was until a good 80% of all the fabulous special effects, gore, blood, and all the bullshit people want to come and see in the movies—a Horror movie especially—was cut out. The only good part about this is that I think we created a film where the tension, the mystery, the characters, and the storyline itself were quite engrossing. The human drama was very effective, so that it still worked as a scary movie even though you didn’t see all the blood.
CrypticRock.com – That is unfortunate that it was forced to be cut. What was the initial reaction from audiences at the point of release?
George Mihalka – It did quite well, but disappointed a lot of the fans. It wasn’t exactly the bloodiest thing in the world by then. So was it really My Bloody Valentine? I jokingly called in My Anemic Valentine then. Then the film did well, and about ten years after, this fabulous Punk band from Dublin decided to call themselves after our movie. That opened up a whole new audience for the film, and it got rediscovered again. From then on, it started climbing the list of all-time great cult movies to the point now where it’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Slasher film, Eli Roth is an incredible fan of the film. Just recently, a vinyl of the soundtrack has been released! Things are going very well.
I learned so much on making movies on My Bloody Valentine and thinking on your feet, and never giving up no matter how difficult it is. That will always be probably my favorite adventure. It almost comes close to having a machine gun put to your head in Russia while you’re working on a Michael Caine picture (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it was a very fun and enlightening experience. Speaking about the film had scenes cut in order to get an R-rating. It stands on his own without that gore, but as a director, is it hard to swallow that they cut a lot of your scenes out of a movie for a rating?
George Mihalka – Oh, obviously. It’s never a pleasant experience to start amputating fingers off your baby. Sometimes you gotta look at it and say, “Well, if I cut this and I cut that, at least the baby survives.” You gotta be very pragmatic about it. I guess you can draw the line at a certain point when the film becomes a parody of itself. But I had enough faith in the story and the acting, the production value, the uniqueness of the locations, and the uniqueness of the storyline that I figured, “Yup, we have to do it. Wished I would have known this earlier or we wouldn’t have spent as much money and time doing this.” There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s something that as long as there’s a rating system, they are always going to be at the mercy of whoever runs that system. Nothing you can do about it, and my philosophy on life is “never push against the wind because all you do is get wet.” The good memories remain. Bad memories, you try to get rid of, and you move on in life and make something else more fun, or as much fun.
CrypticRock.com – That is understandable. Much like many other older Horror flicks, back in 2009, My Bloody Valentine received a remake. Were you surprised to see them remake the film?
George Mihalka – No. John Dunning wanted to do a sequel for a long time, and then he passed away just after that movie came out. There were kind of rumors that maybe it’s not going to be a sequel. We heard that Lionsgate bought the rights and they were looking at doing a remake, so there’s nothing you can do about that. Some of the things that film directors have to do is you give up your copyright in the picture before it gets released. The copyright owner is the distributor in America, so nothing you can do about it.
But it was great. I was very pleased. It was a major, major compliment. We know that there are a lot of films being remade, but when you look at the number of films made in the last 100 years since we’ve had a film industry, and then you look at the number of films that were actually remade, you’re talking about a couple hundred out of half a million. I take that as an honor. Obviously, what it did was, one more time, it opened up the original to a whole new audience who might not have seen it or heard of it. One of the cool things about Horror audiences is that they’re true cinephiles in the sense that most of them wanted to see the original before they’d seen the remake, or if they saw the remake first they’d want to see the original. It actually brought a lot of attention.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it did, and that is a positive thing. In 1985, you worked on the compelling film The Blue Man aka Eternal Evil. A cast that included the late, great Karen Black. How did your experience working on Eternal Evil differ from My Bloody Valentine?
George Mihalka – That was released in Canada under the name The Blue Man. It won the Prix du public at the Avoriaz in France, which at the time was the premier genre Horror film festival in the world. It’s what Fantasia Film Festival is now, so it was quite the honor. We expected some interesting developments for it. Then our American distributors decided not to play up the award winning idea of the film, and not to play up the fact that it was an interesting exploration of gender fluidity as these things were not necessarily on the mind in those days, and called it that ridiculous name, Eternal Evil, which really did not present in any way what the movie was about. It’s like selling hot dogs and calling it caviar. Or selling caviar and calling it hot dogs is basically what they did.
Anybody wanting to see an exploitation film called Eternal Evil got kind of disappointed. You walk in thinking that you’re going to be seeing something with vampires or some weird Gothic shit, and instead you get this floating camera, eerie kind of movie where Karen Black plays a woman with a man’s soul just waiting to get out and take over his body finally. A total misguided effort on their part on how to sell a movie. It sort of died on the vine shall we say.
It was kind of funny actually, I haven’t seen that movie literally since I came back from France at that festival thirty years ago. I saw it at the Fantasia International Film Festival back in July and I was very impressed with it. Impressed to the point where the original producer and I are now talking about potentially doing it as a remake because with the new drone technology and small camera technology, the idea of creating the visuals of free-floating spirits going through windows and walls is now awful easy. In those days, we had to do that all mechanically, and the lightests camera we were using weighed around 35 pounds. It is not easy to keep a camera that heavy floating and moving and making it feel like a butterfly.
Visually, the film looked contemporary. It does not look dated at all. Obviously the costumes from the time give it away a little bit. Even that, I always try to make sure my costume designers don’t go overboard on the trendy fashion statements, so it held up really well. I have great memories of shooting that film. I had too much fun shooting it!
CrypticRock.com – That is exciting to hear. Is there a possibility of a new release for it on Blu-ray for consumers to take in?
George Mihalka – We’re working on that now. Honestly, The Blue Man has been out of my mind for a long time and all of a sudden because of Marc Lamothe at Fantasia… Marc is such an incredible detective and lover of cinema that he was able to find I think the last projectable 35mm print. Since then I’ve spoken to my producing partner and we’re going to start looking, he thinks there may be a negative still available somewhere, so we’re going to look into that. If that’s the case, we might try to do a little release on it. It would be great.
CrypticRock.com – That is something to look forward to.
George Mihalka – The Blue Man’s story, in terms of a timeliness, right now, especially in terms of the discussion about gender fluidity, I think it would be a very strong contemporary Thriller.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly is something in the forefront of people’s minds right now. You have been very active through the years. What do you have coming up?
George Mihalka – I’m now preparing a film called Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump. It’s a very dark, Neo-Noir, modern day Western set in the Badlands of Alberta, which is sort of like our version of Monument Valley. It’s about indigenous gangs and criminals all played by fabulous indigenous actors. Graham Greene is an Academy Award-winning actor from 1991’s Dances with Wolves. He plays an aging indigenous hitman and he’s surrounded by fabulous indigenous actors including Eugene Brave Rock. So that’s what I’m preparing right now. If we can finish the financing, we hope we can shoot it this fall. If not, we will shoot in the spring, because it’s very weather dependent. Living in Canada and shooting in Canada, especially for this film, which is a Canadian story about Canadian indigenous gangsters, we can’t go in there and shoot it in the middle of minus 30 degree weather.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds compelling. What else do you have going on if this is on hold until spring?
George Mihalka – If that’s the case, then I’m also preparing a couple of television mini-series. One of them is called The Jake Helman Files, written by Gregory Lamberson, which is a series of cult novels. It’s supernatural crime stories that I’m preparing as a limited series. Another one called Tales of Dread. If I don’t shoot that film, then I’ll be working on getting those closer to completion. I’m in the development right now. I’m not necessarily interested in just going out and shooting something for the sake of doing that. I’ve done that often enough and long enough, so I’m re-energizing myself by preparing a couple of projects and hopefully spending the next few years making them.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like you have plenty of things coming up. Now, I have one last question for you. What are some of your favorite Horror and Science Fiction films?
George Mihalka – Right now, I like Spring (2014) by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Recently, Let Us Prey (2014) was one of my favorite films for a while. There’s a new one out called The Lodgers that is mind-blowingly cool. I go back and forth. I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), I love Night of the Living Dead (1968).
There’s a new one coming out soon called Poor Agnes that I highly recommend anybody who is a genre fan to watch. Also, 68 Kill… it’s mind-blowingly cool. The writer/director, Trent Haaga, is amazing, as well as Matthew Gray Gubler and AnnaLynne McCord with just performances that are just funny. It’s the craziest Horror and yet hilarious movie I’ve seen in years. As for Science-Fiction, I would have to go with Blade Runner (1982). That would probably be my all-time favorite Science-Fiction film.
For more on George Mihalka: georgemihalka.ca | Facebook
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