Interview – John McNaughton

Interview – John McNaughton

john promo 2Even at a very young age, many have already figured out what their life’s dreams and aspirations are. For some, it takes a little longer than others to find that true calling. For others, it unfortunately never happens. Fortunately, for Chicago native John McNaughton, his passion for film led him to a successful career as a director. Appreciative of film, photography, art, and music, McNaughton had his big break in 1986 when he was given his first opportunity to direct a full-length feature film. A life-long dream come true, McNaughton set out to make a movie, and that movie was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. A gritty story of real life horror, that of a serial killer, McNaughton’s directed Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has since become one of the ’80s most notorious Horror flicks. Celebrating the film’s 30th anniversary, recently we had the chance to sit down with McNaughton to talk his beginnings in film, the story behind Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the nuance behind film creation, and much more. – You have been involved in film as a director for over three decades now. In that time, you have been involved in a lists of films and television projects. What inspired you to get involved in directing?

John McNaughton – I knew from very early in my life I would be an artist of some kind. It took me a while to focus. Interestingly, people find this hard to believe, probably my great inspiration of my life was as a little tiny boy when my mother took me on the train from the South Side of Chicago where we lived downtown to where the big movie palaces were to see Walt Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). I couldn’t have been more than 5, I believe it was January or February, and the movie just blew me away. In those days they would open the studio pictures downtown, and as the weeks rolled on, they would move out until they finally reached our neighborhood. I remember seeing it 10-11 times since I loved it so much. It sort of changed my life as a little kid.

Interestingly, Disney used to re-release their films every so many years, but they never re-released Peter Pan. I didn’t get to see it again until it was on laserdisc, I own a laserdisc of it. It was funny because I saw Fantasia on the Walt Disney TV show, and in the ’60s, when people used to take controlled substances and go see Fantasia (1940), it sort of disappointed me. It was beautifully executed technically, but I thought it was sort of on the lowbrow contents wise. I was worried that, with Peter Pan, I might feel the same way. I saw it again when they re-released it on laserdisc, many years after I was a child, and it was every bit as good, it really is a great film.

I was an only child, I watched TV consistently. I didn’t love sports particularly. When finally I got to art school I was painting and sculpting and I loved all that.  One day I sort of had an epiphany, I was raised on television and television would be my medium. So I left art school, University of Illinois, packed up and came back to Chicago to a place called Columbia College Chicago where they had television production. I enrolled and studied television production. As a minor, I took still photography, and the truth is my passion really was still photography, which was an art form. Those days, television production was done with 3 cameras on the floor, it was pretty bulky, limiting, and not terribly creative. Especially in the great city of Chicago on the streets, which I loved, shooting still photography was very creative there.

It took me a long time to get around actually directing a film (laugh). It was a long route, and I went and did many other things before. From the time I graduated college and the time I made a film was quite a few years. It was not spent perusing from the long assistant to director or PA. I was in a traveling carnival, I was working as a silversmith, I was building boats in New Orleans, I was tending bar in Chicago. I did all sorts of other things to stay alive and satisfy my sense of adventure from growing up in the ’60s. – It is quite an interesting road you took. It seems a lot of those with creative urges have that inspiration as a young child that sticks with them.

John McNaughton – Yes. It is funny. I read this wonderful book years ago about directors and how they got started, which I am in. I will say, every story is different how they got started, there are around 20 directors in it. I read another book about actors, and it was published around 1971 or 1972. It had maybe 20 actors, by the time I read it, which was 20 years later, all had become famous, except for 1 or 2 which disappeared off the face of the earth. Each one basically said the same thing, such as my mother took me to see a play, my father took me to a play. Usually with a play more than a movie, but all by age 5 or 6, they all knew. Very young with actors they just get it and that is it. It is so interesting working with child actors, you think well, what do they know, they are just little kids, what do they know, they haven’t studied. I just worked with two kids on a movie I made called The Harvest (2013). One was 12 and one was 13. These kids were amazing, I mean amazingly gifted. – Yes, it is quite interesting. Children know what they want to do creatively from a young age, as you exhibited. It just took you a little longer to reach that point.

John McNaughton – With actors, it is just so specific. What it really taught me, when I was doing an episode of the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street when we had to hire a 6 year old, I thought, “This ought be good (laughs). How are we going to find a kid?” It wasn’t a simple role, you had to do some dialogue and acting. Not only did I find a fabulous kid, I found 2 or 3 who could have done it. At that point, I had an epiphany, you think people are nature; people are born with gifts. I am interviewing 6 years olds, they haven’t studied, they are born with it. They know, and that to me is pretty amazing, it proves to me that we are born with our gifts.

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer still – It is quite amazing. Your first full-length feature came in 1986 with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film which you directed and co-wrote. How did the idea of Henry come about for you?

John McNaughton – As I grow older, I think economics (laughs). People think you had this great desire to make this movie about Henry Lee Lucas, and I didn’t know who Henry Lee Lucas was. I knew I wanted to make movies, I had rough ideas, but I didn’t have any scripts in hand. Finding my way, doing commercials, these guys at MPI, who still own Henry and undertook the restoration, had a little business on the Southside of Chicago. That is where I washed up after been an adventuring America for a number of years. I came back home and said, “Ok, my adventuring days are over, now I am going to become a movie director.” That was my path and my goal, I had some wild oats to sow, shall we say, and I certainly did. Traveling with a traveling carnival, etc, and did many other things over those wild years. Then I got in a fist fight with my best friend in the middle of the street in New Orleans at 4 AM over a woman. It was like the fist fight in Mad Dog and Glory, where you think, this is not what I should be doing, getting into fist fights with my best friend in the street at 4 in the morning over a woman (laughs).

Within a week, I was packed up and moved back to Chicago. I was working at my cousin’s bar and I met this guy who was acting as a sales rep for the Ali brothers. They had these super 8 loop projectors that were in a crappy black plywood box, which they leased to Pizza Hut and burger joint chains. They would put this box up on shelves and it would project super 8 film onto a screen. They had one hour continuous cartridges of films. It would be public domain stuff, old stuff, cartoons, Charlie Chaplin. Anything that was in public domain, it was old and one hour presentations with no sound. It was a novelty at the time to have movies in your place of business or your store. My job was to circulate the cartridges from one place to the next. You would pick up the cartridge at restaurant A and you would bring it to restaurant B, at restaurant B, you take the cartridge off the machine, and take it to restaurant C.

That was my intro to the movie business in Chicago. I got to be friends with the Ali brothers, I left that job, I left the bar job, and became a union carpenter and I remodeled Burger King. It paid really well and it allowed me time in between jobs, from one Burger King to the next, to actually start put together some video equipment and put some projects together. Then I got a call from Waleed B. Ali again and he told me we are in business with this guy and we want to talk to you about some projects. We went out and made this thing called Dealers in Death, a documentary about Chicago gangsters. We made some money and we were getting to do a similar approach and someone I knew had some old wrestling footage, way before W.W.F. People like Bobo Brazil, a lot of fun. We were going to cut some documentaries on that. I went out to visit Waleed, put him touch with the people who owned the footage, and they set a price for $10,000.When they found out Waleed actually had 10,000 dollars, most people they deal with had no dealers, they then said, no we didn’t say $10,000, we said $20,000. Waleed said I have zero for you, we won’t do business with you now, we now know you are scoundrels. He shut them down and I had gone out there to finalize the deal.

This was going to be my living, and now I thought it wasn’t going to happen. Waleed said in years previous, “Someday John, we are going to make a movie, a real movie.” That day, they were starting to sell the rights to B Horror films which hadn’t been very widely seen. They hadn’t been shown on TV because they were too low rank and too exploitative in those days. There were renting like crazy on video, you could buy the rights pretty cheaply in the beginning and make money. As they became more popular, the Horror genre really took off in those days. The people who were holding the rights to these moves had multiple bidders and the prices were going up.  Waleed’s idea was, “Let’s make our own.” When they would buy the rights, they would give North America, or this or that, they won’t give all worldwide rights. If we make our own, we will get all rights worldwide and it makes sense for us to do this at this point. He said, “I will give you $100,000 to make a Horror film of your choice.” That was a deal.

I left his office, was walking out the building, I walked into another office of someone I had grown up with. A guy named Gus, we went to grammar school together, we went to highschool together, we played in Rock-n-Roll bands in high school together. I walked in to see him and I was kind of stunned because I hadn’t expected the day to turn into my dream come true day. I said, “Gus, Waleed just offered $100,000 to make a Horror film.” He asked me, “What about?” I said, “I have no fucking idea.” He said, “Watch this,” took a cassette, put it in the machine, and it was the 20/20 news magazines, with a 20 minute segment on Henry Lee Lucas. The segment was kind of geared toward this new phenomenon called serial killer. Just random murder, most murders had been committed by people who were previously acquitted. This was kind of a new thing and it was shocking and horrific. They had an interview with Henry Lee Lucas and he was quite a character to behold. They had photographs of some of his victims and his partner Ottis Elwood and Becky, his cousin I think. I thought, “Here you go, here is horror.” So that was it. – Wow, and that is real life horror. That is part of what makes the film so effective all these years later. Another thing, the film had a really gritty nature to the imagery. What was that like bringing that all together on film?

John McNaughton – I had the idea, but the next thing I had to get was a writer. I had put together an outline and the characters, but I was really aiming a little bit lower (laughs). More like genre exploitation. Then Steve Jones, who has been my producing partner since Henry, and we still work together, recommended Richard Fire. Richard was a member of the Organic Theater company, which was Stuart Gordon’s company here in Chicago. That company had broken up, and everyone was looking for work. Richard was a very gifted actor and writer, so he came to the project. He needed to eat, I forget what we offered him, but enough money to get by for a while. He and I sat and wrote the script. Richard really elevated it coming from the theater. Then Steve Jones and I started pulling actors.

Unlike today, we had the money, the money was there. Today you have to get actors and go begging and maybe get lucky, but then, our money was in place. So it was easy for us to pull people in because you could pay them a little bit. So we pulled that group together and went out in 28 straight days and shot that movie. There were no days off, and it was intense. Again, like I say, it the first film set I was ever on, for a dramatic feature film set I was ever on, I was the director. We were making it up, and we had absolutely zero input from anybody but ourselves.

It is a really pure work. There was no studio, no marketing department telling us what actor they had to have to sell the movie, etc, etc. My favorite story is, Richard and I had worked on the script, it took us about two months I think, we finished and it was around September. We had to get going, otherwise we were going to run into winter, and winter is tough here in Chicago. We wanted to get it shot by Thanksgiving and before it snowed, and we did. I had to get a check from Waleed and he gave us 4 installments of $25,000 each. I sent him the script, gave him a week to read it, it was only 83 pages. Then I called him and said, “Waleed, we have to go, have you read the script yet?” He told me, “Well John, honestly, I haven’t.” His exact words were, “Come on in, I am sure it is fine. Drive out and I will give you the check.” He never read the script, even though he has a part in it. He read his part obviously, but he never read the script, which is probably a good thing (laughs).


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer still – That is a pretty interesting story. You mentioned about bringing the cast together. The cast was flawless from Tom Towles to of course Michael Rourke as Henry. Rourke did an amazing job, he really brought the character to life. He really brought terror to the screen. What was it like working with him?

John McNaughton – He was in character, so I just learned to leave him alone in between, because he didn’t want to come out. The actors we had, they were all theater trained and all worked on stage. Tommy had worked on stage extensively for years, so they all knew how to act, but none of them had much movie experience. It was sort of new for all of us, but I wasn’t working with inexperienced actors. They were more experienced than I was as the director, that was for sure, just not in film.

Michael was in that character so I learned really quickly to give him that space. We had this room for him to go in between scenes. Recently, Michael and I did a lot of interviews, and I heard things I didn’t know. He said in the beginning, since he was not sure and he had not played a lead role, that he would come in and out of character in between, but he couldn’t horse around with people. He said it was too hard to get in and out, so he went in a room and isolated himself because it was too much emotional turmoil to come in and out. He would stay in character in the course of the day and let it go in the evenings to go home. – It sounds very intense. Michael’s portrayal of that character was truly terrifying. It is funny, Michael has done so many roles since, but those who have scene Henry, immediately think Henry when they see him.

John McNaughton – Yup (laughs). It is funny because Michael comes from many brothers and sisters in Jasper, Alabama. He is very gregarious, charming, and warm in person. He is nothing like that person, not at all. He is outgoing and people love him. – Yes, it is testament to the fine work he did in the film. In honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, the film was recently given theatrical re-release in 4K quality, and will receive Blu-ray 4k quality release on December 6, 2016. Seeing that the gritty nature of the 16mm film played such an intricate part into the atmosphere of the film, with that said, what can viewers expect from this 4K edition?

John McNaughton – MPI hired the best people in town to do both the visual and audio work. I imagine there are programs which could smooth out some of the graininess and taken some of the edge off, but they had no intention of doing that. They went back to the 16mm, which was stored, which was transferred directly and then did the correction. It looks exactly what it should look like, only just really clean (laughs). There was no real fading, it looks great. It is grainy, it is 16mm, which adds to the effect of realism. Back in the day, there was a time where video cameras were too bulky and had to be cabled, and they were not used for news gathers, 16mm was. That is because it was cable free and much smaller than the news gathering video cameras. It tends to look more like the news, like real stuff.

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer still – Exactly. It will be exciting to see the 4K edition. Many have seen the VHS and DVD editions.

John McNaughton – Also, I don’t know about the various editions over so many years, but I think occasionally it was cropped off at 1.85:1. 16mm meg is not 1.85, it is 2.3. That is the way it is really now, and it really looks cool in that format. – Fantastic! Should be wonderful to see the film the way it was meant to be seen. Your career in directing has been quite diverse, with of course Henry, but in 1993, you worked on the Comedy Mad Dog and Glory, and in 1998, the popular Drama Wild Things. How important is it for you as a director to have a variety of different genres to work with?

John McNaughton – After all these years, again, I started in art and still photography, the frame is very important to me, photography is very important to me. Light is very important. The artistic aspect, since I played music when I was young, so the sound. But to me, what I think I am best at, is getting performances out of actors. People want to connect with people. They want to feel something for those characters on the screen. First and foremost, you have to get performance, and then the audience will connect. All the other stuff is great, of course you want the best cinematographer, and the best of everything. With Wild Things, we shot 2 pages a day. We had Jeffrey L. Kimball, who shot Top Gun and some of the biggest, most expensive commercials you have ever seen. It is stunning, but it is slow. Which is fine, you can tweak all the details, you have to make sure the lighting is perfect. But, if you don’t have that, you better concentrate on the performance. That is what is going to catch the audience to care and bother to watch your film. – Yes, you want to have that connection. The level of performance and character development in essential. As stated, you have worked in Horror a bit. In 2006, you worked with Mick Garris on Masters of Horror for a segment called Haeckel’s Tale. Out of curiosity, are you a fan of Horror cinema?

John McNaughton – It wasn’t my first love, like some of the other Masters of Horror, but I have always loved the transgressive. The thing is, Horror is always a great place for that, like Henry. Even though Henry to me is a character study about people who have done horrific things than the genre Horror. I love the disreputable, I grew up with disreputable people, they are the most fun (laughs). Because it is disreputable, the Horror genre, you can get away with so much. It is not given artistic credence by the elites necessarily. In that way, you are free in the Horror genre to really push it. You can sneak things into the Horror genre; social statements and ideas that you probably won’t get away with straight up Drama. I enjoy the Horror genre, and like I say, I enjoy being transgressive. The one thing with the Masters of Horror, was there were some really gifted directors there. Maybe 1, 2, 3, or 4, just sort of got stuck and would have liked to broken out and done other things. Hollywood very much likes to put you in a slot; you have been successful once, you made money, keep doing that please. It could be hard for a director if you get stuck in it.


Universal Pictures


Columbia Pictures – Yes, that happens a lot in art. An actor, director, or a musician can be pigeonholed like that.

John McNaughton – Again, what took me a long time to come to terms with, was the market place. Growing up in the ’60s, you think money bad, business bad. Then you grow up and you think well that was stupid. I have friends who are visual artists, same thing, you have had success with a certain style in your gallery/representation, they want you to stay there, because they want to make money. It happens in the arts throughout. In our democratic society, it is a mass market society, the marketplace dictates a lot. People are in businesses to make money. Some puts up your painting show, they have bricks and mortar, employees, they have to print catalogues, wine and cheese, pay the rent, they have to make it back. It is commerce.



Purchase Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 30th anniversary: Amazon | iTunes 

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