A Filmmaker’s Flashback: My 2010 Interview with “The Godfather of Gore,” Herschell Gordon Lewis
“Any schmuck can aim a camera.”
In 2005, I interviewed nearly 75 creatives for a motivational non-fiction book, How to Survive a Day Job. My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.
The book was self-published and sold well. Though it’s long out of print, I’ve been reprinting several interviews a week on Medium. Check them out.
In 2010, I elected to return to the well and compose a sequel book, “You’re Too Smart to Go Down Stupid,” which would interview still more creatives. I made it through 30 new interviews … until life, and work, got in the way.
As the sequel book was neither completed nor published, the interviews from “You’re Too Smart to Go Down Stupid” will also be reprinted here, beginning with this one.
In his varied career, the late Herschell Gordon Lewis was a filmmaker, an English professor, an advertising executive and direct-mail consultant. As a filmmaker, he was best known for creating horror’s “splatter” films movement, beginning in 1963 with the release of “Blood Feast.” Though long-considered “The Godfather of Gore,” Herschell also worked in genres such as rural comedy, so-called “nudie-cuties,” juvenile delinquent films and children’s films.
I knew Herschell only briefly, and towards the end of his life. He was a gregarious man and a showman, whose philosophy on the subject of filmmaking was summarized thusly:
For the record, I disagree with this view. I sense Marty Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and others would too.
Personally, I believe the craft to serve both masters. However … Herschell was a pioneer in the indie film business, coming to prominence between Ed Wood’s schlock and Melvin Van Peeples’ seminal black-focused product. The indie film business came of age during this period.
To the interview …
Joel: I’m going to familiarly refer to you as the “Godfather of Gore” in this interview’s title, but I don’t necessarily look at you that way. I see you arguably as among the Godfathers of Independent Film. Do you have any response to that?
Herschell: Yes, I do. I’m grateful and very pleased to hear that comment, because gore is only one area, and the reason that I’m pleased to hear what you have to say is because for years being tied only to gore, it made me feel like something of an outlaw in this universe. But I’ve — I think I believe if you live long enough to become legitimate in almost anything you do.
Joel: There you go. Why don’t you — take me a little bit from your background, your education, and up through the nudie films, up until about the point where you did Blood Feast.
Herschell: I started off as a schoolteacher. As you probably know, because I can sense literacy in your questions, you reach a point in your educational career, when you feel the only civilized job is to teach. So I went to Northwestern for 125 years and wound up getting a job at Mississippi State teaching journalism, English, and the humanities. And I developed a profound respect for the academic world in every way except one, and that one was financial.
Teachers don’t work hard. I know everybody complains they work hard. It’s not so. I was a teacher. I did not work hard. I was teaching English literature of the Victorian era, and Robert Browning is not about to write any more poems. One set of them lasts a lifetime.
So at some point, I got back into the advertising world, which I had dabbled with even as an undergraduate. I wound up in the radio business. As I say, I was on the air in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and then got a job at WRAC in Racine, Wisconsin, where I was their — originally the commercial manager — and eventually the station manager.
People kept saying why are you in television, which is like saying why aren’t you rich? But I started scouted around; I got a job at WKY in Oklahoma City as a producer/director, which is what gave me much of the background in figuring camera angles and lenses and how in position for a shot. It was an absolutely invaluable experience.
I wound up back in Chicago again as the television director of an advertising agency. In the course of shooting commercials, we came across a little studio whose owner’s partner had left the company. He was looking for a partner, and I bought a half interest in that studio. His name was Martin Schmivhofer, but we called it Lewis and Martin Films, because Lewis and Schmivhofer would not have fit on the building.
Joel: Can I ask you to spell that last name?
Herschell: Yep. S — C — H — M — I — V — H — O — F — E — R. That was his name. Nice fellow. Marty Schmivhofer and I, in fact, had a very good time together as partners until he joined the IA, that is, the IATSE, the cameraman’s union, and that effectively split us up, because he began to accept assignments. And I bought out his interest in the studio, and there I was solo.
One day I was complaining about the film business. I was shooting occasional commercials. I had bought 35 mm film equipment, because the big advertising agencies insisted on shooting in 35 mm. What I hadn’t realized was they also insisted in shooting in California. I was stuck with all this equipment and overhead, and one day I was complaining to some friend of mine about the business. “Well, how do you make any money in the film business?” I said.
“Well, the only way to make money in the film business is to shoot features.”
“Well, why don’t you shoot features?”
See, another question, though, the only answer is a real question paralleling, “Why aren’t you rich?” And that started germinating. And I put together a bunch of friends, and we formed a company we called Mid-Content Films to shoot features. That’s where I first met Dave Friedman, because I realized again, one gets an expensive education, and if he’s lucky, he can make the expense pay off. If he’s not lucky, he winds up opening cartons at Wal-Mart.
Dave Friedman worked for a company called Modern Film Distributors in Chicago, and Modern Film Distributors was referred to me as a distributor, one of the great number of distributors that they could be the primary distributor assigning, we call them exchange areas, to their parallels in another town.
And we made two movies. One was called The Prime Time and one was called Living Venus. There again, it was an expensive education for me. With the Prime Time I made two mistakes. One, I settled for the opinion of people whose opinions were much more worthless than mine, which I found that out later. I did not direct — that was one thing. I bought a script at the suggestion of a man named Fred Niles who had a film studio in Chicago. I had to sell my studio to get my investment in Mid-Continent Films. See, it’s like an O. Henry story where this fellow goes into hock to buy a comb for his wife and his wife goes into hock to selling her hair to get a gift for him.
So Fred Niles suggested this script writer. I bought the script blindly. The Prime Time was the name of it. And the other mistake I made was in hiring another director. I was the producer. And this fellow that directed that movie was very good at shooting beer cans and that kind of thing, but live action was very much beyond him. And beyond anybody, really, in Chicago. That wasn’t where anybody ever shot a feature for years and years. There was this, I think Charlie Chaplin made a movie there maybe fifty years before.
Joel: Hmm…at the Essanay Studios?
Herschell: At — what was it — at the Essanay Studios, yeah. They were up on Argyle Street. So, the second movie was Living Venus, and by this time I had learned a few things. First, I had learned to control a union crew, which is a very difficult thing to learn, because left alone they will step on you. You try to get an assistant cameraman to load a magazine at 5:25 in the afternoon. Uh uh. Got to go into overtime. And every one of these things is a money posturing. If it’s a major studio, so what? I was not a major studio.
The second film, Living Venus, I directed myself, and so Modern Film Distributors began to distribute our films for us through other distributors and various places, and when they did that we began to get film rentals in, but Modern Film Distributors hung onto the film rentals. Eventually they went belly up, pulling Mid-Continent Films and all the film rentals, and that’s where I wound up at the first of a number of mid-life crises, where because my friends had lost money, I had no friends. I had lost money. I had no money. I had no studio.
So I got a job at another smaller film studio called United Film and Recording as their staff director. And the — life was tough. Times were tough. One day, Dave Friedman, who was also totally at loose ends, because his company had gone bankrupt, he dropped in and he said, “I’ve got a deal here for us if we can do it, because the deal is through a film distributor in Dallas, and he will pay us seven thousand dollars if we’ll shoot a one-reel color film, one reel being a thousand feet, which is eleven minutes, 35 mm. If we shoot a one-reeler with pretty girls, he’ll pay us seven thousand dollars.”
Well, seven thousand dollars was an awful lot of money for a one-reel film.
Joel: By the way, just backtrack just a sec. Harvey Korman was in Living Venus, right?
Herschell: He was.
Joel: OK. Interesting. I’m assuming that was one of his first…
Herschell: Funny bit about Harvey Korman. Dave Friedman told me a couple of years ago he was on an airplane somewhere and he ran into Harvey Korman, who snubbed him mercilessly because that was the first film Harvey Korman was in. And I did him a big favor. He had an opportunity to be a second banana in Carol Burnett or Danny Kaye or some strange show at the time, and needed footage of himself, and I blew the brains off the laboratory to get him some footage to do that clip. Well, what the heck.
You see, you raise another welt here. He’s a fine comic actor. Without a question. He’s a fine comic actor.
So, where was I here? Oh, all right, anyway. So I figured, here’s what I figured on that one: that I could operate the camera, which I certainly could. There were no terrors left for me in the operation of a Mitchell camera. I could load it, I could fire it, I could make dissolves and fades in the camera without going to optical effects. I could wipes using Clorox bleach…nothing there.
The second thing I thought was that I could do the musical score behind it, because United Films and Recording, who I knew well, had a piano, an organ, and a celesta. And that’s all anybody would need for that kind of thing. So I felt very much, very comfortable, very much at ease doing that.
Dave said he could get some girls for fifty bucks a day. So it made a lot of sense — I figured we could come out of this thing with maybe a couple of thousand dollars each. So I — and I figured I could edit the thing. There was nothing to it. So our only costs would be the girls and film. I figured we wouldn’t even bother getting a work print; we’d cut the original negative.
At that point, we had the interjection of an outside force. Ancient Greek drama has a device called deus ex machina, god from machine, in which when a playwright would write himself into a corner, the problem would be solved by a basket coming down from above, and there’s a god in the basket, and he would issue some edict, and that would solve the problem. My deus ex machina was a fellow named Jack Curtain, who worked for a film laboratory. I think the name of it was Groponte (sp?) in New York, and I had dealt with Jack Curtain on the earlier movies, and, of course, he knew I was working with United Film. He came in, because of what he had going.
Oh, well, I’ve got this big one-reel thing. He says, “Hold it a minute.” He says, “I’ve got a deal, I’ve got an offer here for you.” I guess in current Mario Puzo’s terms it would be an offer you can’t refuse. “But I’ve got a deal for you,” he says. “If you will, instead of shooting a one-reeler, shoot a full-length seventy-minute film.” At that time seventy minutes was the minimum length for any movie that a theater would accept as first feature of a double feature. “If you’ll make a seventy-minute film,” he says, “I’ll make you a deal in which no laboratory bills are due until ninety days after we deliver the print.” Which meant at that point I didn’t even have to pay for processing.
So I accepted with alacrity. And we made a little movie called The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, which was the first 35 mm film of its type. Russ Meyer had made one in 16 mm, but there’s a big difference between 16 mm and 35 mm, especially when you’re talking to theater owners. So the nature of Lucky Pierre — we shot it in a couple of days. It was in October. It was cold, but we didn’t care.
The film runs exactly 6,300 feet, which is seventy minutes. I only bought 8,000 feet of film. We used absolutely every foot of film that we bought. Cut the slates (?) off and there was nothing left. In fact, Dave and I were the entire crew. I was the director and cameraman. He was the producer and sound man. To the extent — we had no crew at all. If we had sink takes, the actors had to work their own clap stick, put the clap stick aside, and then start acting. It was really — in retrospect, it’s funny. At the time it didn’t bother me at all.
Joel: I’m validated. This is why you’re one of the Godfathers of Independent Film.
Herschell: Yeah. That’s — you’re making your point. In fact, you’re helping me make your point for you, which is a very good argumentative technique.
A fellow who owned a little theater at the edge of Chicago’s loop — the theater was called the Capri, and the fellow was named Tom Dowd — and Tom Down is another reason why I was able to make strides in the independent film business. Tom agreed to play Lucky Pierre at his theater. Well, he played the answer print. And answer prints back then are not likeanswer prints today. They were all done by hand, and they were terrible. They were the basis for future decision-making on lighter or darker scenes. The answer print was barely projectable.
Tom Dowd played the answer print for nine weeks. Broke every house record at the Capri, and suddenly we were whole again. And that’s really what put me back into the film business with both feet.
So we began to grind out this kind of movie, like so much hamburger, and came to the conclusion it’s easier to shoot in Florida. First of all, because there was a much great number of pretty girls down in Florida. Also, when it starts turning cold in Chicago, that’s the place to go. Good motivation. Oh, it’s getting cold. Better get down to Florida and shoot a movie. (Short interruption.)
I’m sorry. We’re trying to get our intercom system working properly. As it turns out, you ring an intercom, and it rings I don’t know where, but it used to work. But like everything else, it used to work; it doesn’t anymore.
Well, so, once again, we had pretty much this business to ourselves. And it was quite obvious after awhile — there are no secrets in the movie business — I think everybody is aware of that, and it’s much more true today than it was even then. Russell Crowe lays an egg in a movie, and everybody knows it the next day now. We realized that the business was getting crowded, and also it was taking a direction I didn’t want to take, because I had small kids then, and I could see the thing taking a very nasty turn and getting stronger and stronger and more and more censorship and more and more negative headlines, so the question was: What other kinds of film might there be that the major companies either wouldn’t make or couldn’t?
And on analysis I came up with that marvelous four-letter word: G — O — R — E. We were staying at a little place in Miami called the Suez Motel. Outside the Suez was a big sphinx. Only about nine feet high, but a sphinx is a sphinx. You look up against the sky and you have no idea whether it’s nine feet high or ninety feet high, and that gave us the Egyptian overtone for Blood Feast. And I figured in for a penny, in for a pound. And that’s what we did with Blood Feast. I went totally off the wall with the thing. Nobody had ever, ever made a movie like that before. And the question was whether or not anybody would come to see it, and whether having come to see it they would bomb the theater afterward.
Shooting Blood Feast was a hoot. Because nobody had the vaguest idea what we were doing, really, including ourselves. Sometimes people would say, “Well, how about the script?” And I said, “What’s that?” As a matter of fact, the script for Blood Feast ran fourteen pages. We wrote it after we finished the movie. It was really — we gave somebody on the crew credit for script. There wasn’t really a script for Blood Feast. That wasn’t the point of it, you see. This wasn’t a critics picture. I have never made a critics picture. The closest I ever came was the movie that is my personal favorite, Two Thousand Maniacs. But even that was not really — it was aimed at our audiences. And that’s where I think so many independent filmmakers make a terrible mistake, and a costly mistake. They aim their movies inward rather than outward. There are people out there. You want them to spend money to see your movie.
I’m getting passionate on this point, which I shouldn’t do.
Joel: I’m just letting you run with it, man. I’m just — keep going.
Herschell: Okay. Well, anyway, Blood Feast, when we opened Blood Feast, I figured, well, we opened it in Peoria, figuring if we die in Peoria, who will know? We didn’t die. We killed them in Peoria. At that point, I said to Dave, “What if we made a decent one?”
So back we went to Florida to a little town called St. Cloud, which is near Orlando. We shot Two Thousand Maniacs, which I just told you is my — to this day — is my favorite of all the movies I’ve made, about a small Southern town that gets even for the Civil War. And on we went rocketing along with movies of that sort.
Well, after we had made Color Me Blood Red, about mad painter who paints in human blood where it’s red, of course if he’d ever heard of chickens, that wouldn’t have happened. Dave went off — there’s a, I’m interregnum here, I should, I maybe get into the making of — we had a partner named Sam Colburg who owned some theaters in Chicago. In fact, it was his theater in Peoria where we opened Blood Feast. Colburg said after screening Two Thousand Maniacs, “Let’s form a permanent film company.” Well, of course, who was about to argue with that?
And he said, “I’ve got the Exchange Bank into this, and all we have to do is show them a nice balance, and we’re going to sit on the film rentals.” Well, Colburg sat on the film rentals personally to a point at which we couldn’t pry them out of him, and I ran into the guy I knew with the Exchange Bank and mentioned it. He said, “What are you talking about? Sam told me you guys weren’t interested in that.”
At that point the other partners sued Colburg. My suit dragged on for four years. Dave settled with him privately and moved to California, and that was the end of the partnership between Dave Friedman and me until we came back to Blood Feast 2 a couple of years ago.
Well, but at that point I was deep in production on a movie called Moonshine Mountain, which really kept me alive for a couple of years. Moonshine Mountain bailed me out of a situation in which I had no income from the earlier movies because of Colburg and I had nothing else going. So that was a story there.
Meanwhile, I began to develop the other career that really paid off very handsomely for me, and that was in the area of marketing.
Joel: Actually, that’s the perfect place for me to interject, because you — and this is actually a good segue, because you’ve always believed that advertising and promotions are at least as important as the films themselves, right?
Herschell: I’m sorry, one more second. (Short interruption.) I’m sorry. My problem — we’re leaving on Tuesday. This is my trip to Siberia and Mongolia and I’m going to be gone for three and a half weeks.
Joel: Have you ever been there before?
Herschell: Well, we’ve been to Russia a number of times, but I’ve never been — this is a trip…there’s a special train that runs down the Siberian Express…Siberian whatever they call it, but they rent coaches from the Orient Express, so it’s not as primitive as you normally find. Get into Ulan Bator in Mongolia, and we’ve got a deal there to go out in the Gobi Desert on Bactrians, which are these two-humped camels.
Herschell: My wife is such an adventurer, we’ve been everywhere. We’ve been with the lemurs in Madagascar, with the penguins in Antarctica, with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, with the polar bears up in Hudson Bay…
Joel: Have you ever thought about writing about — you’ve written like a thousand books — have you ever thought of writing a book on this?
Herschell: On travel? I’ve written some articles on travel, but I’m not a travel expert. I’m simply a traveler.
Joel: Wow. I’ve got to refocus this, now you’ve got me curious. I’m going to drop you an e-mail after you get back. I’m dying to see how this trip went. Let me ask you this. I have to get back here.
You’ve always believed that advertising and promotions are at least as important as the films themselves.
Herschell: Yeah, I think you’re understating it.
Herschell: Any schmuck can aim a camera. It’s getting somebody to look at it that makes — and I reached the point where I was doing campaigns for other people’s movies. And looking back at it, that has to be the ultimate compliment, far more than people saying, “Hey, people liked your movie.” To have somebody say a producer likes your campaign, that’s — I see major companies involved who haven’t gotten a clue about how to campaign a picture. We were pioneers, absolutely.
Joel: So tell me about direct marketing and First Communication.
Herschell: Oh, you are educated on my background. That’s dangerous. When it looked as though the major companies were — they kept saying — they said how long as this been going on? They began to make movies that I couldn’t compete with. They had exploding clothing. They had moving mandibles. They had rubberized limbs and that kind of things you can get in a magic shop today, but then we had to use department store men. So it was really the Alpha and the Omega production, and I could — I saw that the industry that I had started had moved beyond me. Even at that time, I was writing copy for the old Morlock Agency in Chicago. Old mail-order agency. And I began expanding my vistas in marketing.
Now, I had an agency of my own, but it wasn’t a direct marketing agency. It was a conventional advertising agency specializing in television, because I had all the equipment. It made some sense. But, sure enough, my biggest account went bust, owing me a ton of money for television advertising, and suddenly I didn’t have half a floor in the Wrigley building, I had little office in Highland Park — in fact, I was no longer an executive. I was back on the keyboard with the next mid-life crisis.
At that moment, or shortly thereafter, some people I knew at the only direct-mail agency I had ever heard of, talking to them and I’ve forgotten under what circumstances. We have a client we can’t satisfy. Do you want to try a piece of copy for them? I asked what was then my standard and only question: Will I get paid? He said the paid on delivery.
So it turned out their client was a company called the Bradford Galleries. It’s now called the Bradford Exchange, which made collectors’ plates. And I had no idea what collectors plates were or are. I didn’t know if they were — printing plates or dental plates or — it was pure B.S., and that’s my specialty. So I wrote this piece of copy, and I got paid. And I didn’t owe CBS 85% of the money. I said, “Wow! Here’s a new universe for me.” And I became fairly well known in that area, and I began grinding out books and writing for major clients. And now, of course, I’m in the direct marketing hall of fame, and well thought of in that business, and I give speeches all over the world.
And it’s really funny. It’s funny. Until the Internet exposed me, the two worlds didn’t collide. I would be giving occasionally a speech on marketing, and somebody would walk up and say, “Hey, there’s some strange guy who used to make these goofy movies, and he has the same name you do.” — “I’ll sue him. I’ll sue him.” Or they’d bring up a poster or one sheet or a cell photograph from one of the old movies, and it was like having a child come home at the wrong time.
But once the Internet had opened my left flank, the recognition becameso universal that on my own Web site, which I guess you’ve seen, is a thing called filmography, so I certainly don’t deny it. But I tell you that I couldn’t live the lifestyle I do based only on movies. My career path, I guess you’d say, in the last — what — twenty-five years has been primarily marketing drive. And after The Gore Gore Girls, which we shot in the middle 1970s, I didn’t make another movie until three years ago.
Joel: I was going to ask you, in fact, Blood Feast 2.
Herschell: Blood Feast 2. Over the years, every — at least once a year, sometimes three, four times a year — somebody would say let’s make Blood Feast 2. I did all the defense mechanisms, which was put your deal together and call me. That got rid of them. These were just people who wanted to get their names in Variety or what, I don’t know.
Finally, Jackie Morgan called me and so I said, “Put your deal together and call me.” He said, “I’ve got a deal put together.” Which was slightly different from the others. And at that point, I recognized an ailment that seems to be generic to the movie business. And that is one in which making movies is like having malaria. You think you’re over it, but the germ is lurking there. And when Jackie came up with his deal, I accepted with alacrity.
On Blood Feast 2 there are some things you have to understand, and one is it’s not my movie. I was a hired director. They wanted to use my name. It wasn’t the script I would have had. But he had a script. He had a budget. He had a crew. He had a cast. We shot it in New Orleans where he lives, and I was the director, which was certainly a heck of a lot better than being the cameraman and the director and the loader and the lighting man and the editor and picking up the cables at night.
So all together, and of course the equipment was brand new Panavision camera. I could see the action on a television monitor instead of worrying, “Oh my God, is there mike in the picture. I guess we’ll find out tonight when we look at it.” So all together, making movies is certainly a lot easier now than it was then.
Joel: Very interesting.
Herschell: Based on Blood Feast 2, the phone started to ring again. And I thought I had a deal to make the Grimm Fairy Tale with a company called Bloodworks, but they disappeared. That’s the only word for it. After negotiations, we’re going to start shooting Grimm Fairy Tale in February of this year, and they vanished, which I think is funny.
So now I need a producer.
Joel: Tell me about the value of persistence. I mean, you’ve had this incredibly colorful career where you just kept going. You’ve been entrepreneurial, direct marketing, films, and on and on and on, and traveling…
Herschell: Yeah, but you see, the value of persistence is a misnomer, because George Bush is persistent. He is constantly wrong.
Joel: I see we’re on the same page.
Herschell: Persistence only makes sense if persistence is accompanied by two things: One is logic and the other is the sense of individual basic psychology. And my persistence has paid off only because I’ve been doggone lucky in guessing as to what the direction the persistence should take. But, yes, I say, “Don’t give up.” Neither do you bang your head on the wall.
And I see people making movies digitally. Of course anybody can make movies today. Anybody. They’re making movies to please themselves, and to me that’s a classic mistake. I learned I marketing, you don’t run an ad to please yourself, you project yourself inside the experiential background to the message recipient, not the message sender. And here people want to show off. Uh uh. That’s an absolute death wish.
Joel: Do you have any regrets about anything that you’ve been through — your path, or…?
Herschell: Any regrets?
Joel: Any regrets.
Herschell: Oh, sure. You collect regrets as you go along the way some people collect stamps. Definitely. I regret having given credit, for example, to advertising clients who didn’t pay me, who in turn damaged my own situation. I regret not having ever had the opportunity to make a really decent budge picture. Lots of regrets. But you balance that against the pleasures, and with any kind of good fortune at all, the scale swings very heavily to the proper side.
Joel: And that is the perfect place to end it.
Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away on September 26, 2016. He was, thankfully, not forgotten by history as he certainly earned his place — regardless of where your morality stands on the matter.
The New York Times printed a comprehensive obituary for H.G., focusing on his life and career:
Herschell Gordon Lewis, a Pioneer of Gore Cinema, Dies at 90
Herschell Gordon Lewis, a director who set new standards for gore and violence in the early 1960s with the low-budget…
I was happy to see this. Herschell Gordon Lewis, despite or rather because of his foray into cinematic gore and misogyny saw some subtext in his work that over the years has been (grudgingly) recognized by the film industry proper.
He was also — some would say “conversely” considering his output — a rather kind man. That’s how I remember him on a personal level.
Thank you for reading.
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