JR Bookwalter: A Career in B-Movies and Beyond

by Richard King

The full version of this interview was published in DARK STAR 14/15

Writer Richard King's forthcoming book on New Wave American Horror movies will offer a detailed insight into the world of low-budget, independent American horror movie makers. JR Bookwalter is one such movie maker. His 1988 underground classic The Dead Next Door has recently been released on video in the UK for the first time on the Screen Edge label. Another of his bloody horrors, Ozone, will be released on 26 May also by Screen Edge. His more recent features, Polymorph and Sandman are available mail order through EI Cinema in the US (NTSC only) but as yet remain unavailable directly in the UK. Here, Richard King provides a Dark Star exclusive, talking with JR Bookwalter in an interview not even to be published in his forthcoming book.

R.K. - For the past decade we have been witnessing a sort of slow death of the horror movie. As someone who still works in the genre what do you think has happened?
J.R.B. - Everyone has their own opinion...too many Freddy / Jason / Leatherface, etc. sequels...too many bad low-budget/shot-on-video flicks... I think it's hard for any genre to sustain a long and successful run. This business is cyclical. Look how popular horror movies were back in the black-and-white days. Eventually, people got tired of seeing how many different ways The Mummy or Frankenstein or The Wolfman could terrorize people...and when the monsters started meeting each other and you threw Abbott & Costello in, well...that was pretty much the final nail in the coffin. Horror today isn't quite dead, but the pending "Freddy vs. Jason" movie should just about do it. [Grin] But what goes around comes around...

Your prolific career leads one to suspect you come from the Roger Corman school of film-making. "Got a great poster, now lets make the movie."
Oh, boy... I was afraid that was how people saw me! No, actually I loathe that style of moviemaking. My experiences with David DeCoteau were like that... I love David dearly, but that's not the way I want to make movies. There's only really been four movies that I have set out to make which I feel represent where I'm coming from: THE DEAD NEXT DOOR, OZONE, THE SANDMAN and POLYMORPH. Love 'em or hate 'em, these carry my "signature" far more than ROBOT NINJA and some of the others I've made. But I've always made the joke that my brain is split halfway between Spielberg mentality and Fred Olen Ray mentality...I don't mean that in a bad way, let me clarify...part of me loves the idea of making movies the way Fred and David and Corman make them, quick and cheap and down and dirty...but ideally I'd be much happier making one movie every two years or so that's something personal and I can be proud of. My goal is to make something I would enjoy watching... but it hasn't happened yet.

DND took four years to make. That's an awful long time to spend on a low budget horror movie, how come it took so long and how the hell did you manage to keep your team motivated?
Most of the delays were because [EVIL DEAD director Sam] Raimi wanted to "approve" everything in stages. Because he was off making EVIL DEAD 2 and getting DARKMAN prepped during the course of the making of this movie, DND became a low priority for him. It was extremely frustrating for me, because not all of that 4 years went into the movie! However, in many ways it was beneficial, because I was able to play around with things, reshoot things, and generally tinker around with it until it was probably as good as it was going to get at that time. (Of course, if I had to toy with it now, I'd make many, many changes!!)

Here's a rough timeline: I approached Raimi in late July, 1985. The first check was cut in early Sept. We were slated to start shooting in the fall, but Sam and I kept going back and forth on whether or not we should shoot on VHS or 3/4" video...well, by that time winter was here and shooting stalled for awhile. As a result, I lost 95% of my cast and crew, so when spring of '86 rolled around, we regrouped and got started again. In the downtime, I kept revising the script. Sam hooked me up with Jolie Jackunas, who came down from Detroit and wound up playing the female lead, Kuller, in March or April. That's when the gears really started to turn. We re-cast the movie and started shooting in June.

Then...we got the first couple weeks of footage back and found out that the camera was malfunctioning, and most of that footage had to be scrapped! So, there was another break while we got our shit together...but this time we didn't lose anyone, much to my surprise. Anyway, come July we were into full-tilt shooting, which lasted nearly 3 months. From there, we would occasionally get together to shoot pickup and insert shots, or do some reshoots as I started editing. Finally, in Dec. 1988 we locked the picture. As far as keeping everyone motivated...that was a weird thing. I was only 19 when we started the movie, I guess I must have put on a pretty convincing act, because making DND was sort of like our own little Jonestown in that everyone just sort of bowed down to the movie and put in everything they could. I've never quite had a situation like that again.

You've said that George Romero is really the only director who gets zombies right. In a recent TV interview he spoke about his self censorship in recent years brought on by his family responsibilities. From a film makers point of view what do you think about this comment?
Well, I've found that the older I get, the less interested I am in showing peoples' guts hanging out of their severed, broken I guess I agree with him, although I don't have the wife and children that he does. In my case, I just got tired of cleaning up all the messes that we had to make after shooting this stuff! [Laughs] Seriously though, I don't see what difference it makes. If Romero wants to concern himself with his family responsibilities, he should probably just not show his children what he does. But, that's difficult. I know my parents aren't fond of my earlier work, and when they saw THE SANDMAN recently, they were beaming with pride. I now have a formula: If my parents can watch it, it will be a flop with the fans. If the fans love it, my family will hate it. 'Nuff said...

Has your association with Romero continued?
When I produced the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 25TH ANNIVERSARY DOCUMENTARY we shot a roundtable with Romero, John Russo, Russ Streiner and Karl Hardman and Tom Brown and I got chatty with Romero; I of course took the opportunity to toss him a copy of DND. A few months later, Romero had a "friends & family" screening of THE DARK HALF (well before it actually opened) and Russo invited me along. When the screening was done and everyone was just hanging around talking, Romero came out of the crowd to chat with me and tell me how much he enjoyed DEAD NEXT DOOR! I couldn't believe it, it was a bizarro moment. I haven't seen him since, but have considered calling him out of the blue just to see what he's doing. Someday I hope to con him into being in my DND sequel.

After spending four years on Dead Next Door, what possesed you to do OZONE a film that was so much more abitious with no backing and no money. Are you crazy?
Sure! Actually, after DND I had been involved producing and/or directing 9 other features for Cinema Home Video that were largely a real disappointment. In fact, at the end of the 9th feature (early 1992), I was about ready to call it quits altogether. It was the only time since age 11 (1978) that I began to question why I was putting myself through this. I took a few months off to think it over, and then Doug Snauffer, an old friend who had worked on DND very early on, brought me this script that David Wagner (who had also worked on DND briefly) had written and planned to direct. He had $1,500 and a VHS camcorder that he was going to make it with. They wanted me to get involved largely as a co-producer, to utilize the S-VHS-C equipment that I had.

I was headed to L.A. for a week to set up a dealer's table at a Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, and on the trip there I started to read Dave's script and it was like an awakening. I felt the "old" me coming back, as corny as that sounds! I got very excited about the potential of OZONE. So, when I got back the following week, I sat down with Dave and asked him what he would think if I wanted to direct it. Surprisingly, he agreed... he just wanted to see a movie get made from it and to learn from the experience. He tossed in his $1,500 and I matched it along the way. Originally I figured it would cost closer to $6,000--we had done most of those CHV pictures for $1,000-$2,500 each, so I was really counting on using what I had learned from those to make OZONE the best it could be. My philosophy is you've got to have time or money--one or the other, and preferably both. We never had enough of either on the CHV pictures, because we were always shooting to meet some insane release schedule. So on OZONE I swore that I'd take my time, and that would be my greatest weapon. And I think it worked for the most part.

We shot for 3 weeks initially in the summer of '92, then sporadically after that. In October I got a gig producing MIDNIGHT 2: SEX, DEATH AND VIDEOTAPE for John A. Russo, so we shut down for awhile as winter fell, wrapping up the interior shots. I cut a trailer in early '93 and the entire feature was done about a year from when we started. To answer your question more directly: I had something to prove with OZONE. A lot of people were laughing at me for doing those CHV pictures, and for shooting on video in general. So my response was to put my all into OZONE and show people what could be done. Strangely, in the 4 years or so since, I still haven't seen too many vidpics with as much production value and "gusto" I must have done something right after all. [Grin]

Can you tell us a bit about your latest movie POLYMORPH
Well, it's quite a departure from DND...POLYMORPH is more of a sci- fi/actioner. It's an idea I had back in 1989 but never really did anything with. A space probe falls to Earth containing an organism that can jump from host to host. A scientist goes out looking for it and sends up some of his interns to help. Well, the scientist has a run-in with Tarper (Sasha Graham, ADDICTED TO MURDER), who happens to be a drug runner that's hiding a shitload of cocaine up in a cabin in the woods where this meteor landed. Tarper kills the scientist and gets infected by the organism, but not before calling her boss, Carlos (Tom Hoover, OZONE), who gathers up his gang and heads up to the cabin. At the same time, the interns (James L. Edwards, who also wrote the screenplay, and Joseph A. Daw) are headed into the woods, bringing with them their lady friends (Ariauna Albright and Jennifer Huss). To make a long story short, the interns have a big run-in with the drug gang, and in the middle of that mess is this glob from outer space wreaking havoc! POLYMORPH is pretty heavy on action and digital special was shot very cheaply, but I think it's the most solid work I've done in terms of directing and editing. Plus it's got a great cast and there's some really nice moments in there. It's got a lot more character than my past efforts.

Finally, what are your plans for the immediate future?
To get out of this level of filmmaking, short term. Right now I'm lumped in with every other loser with a camcorder, and it bothers me. A lot of people watch my movies and they see a big difference between what I'm doing and what the average camcorder Coppola is doing, but the mentality is still there that I'm not making "real" movies. So, I aspire to move up the next rung on the ladder. I'm patient enough to take baby steps into this business. I've never wanted to be a one-shot wonder, here today and gone tomorrow. Fame is not why I do this. If Charles Band and Roger Corman have taught us anything, it's that longevity is the key to success in this business. If you can live to fight another day, you will have some level of success.

The full version of this interview was published in DARK STAR 14/15