With the world on lockdown, what are we all watching? This week, I spoke to filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith, who has directed movies in just about every genre, from “BMX Bandits” and “Stunt Rock” to “Turkey Shoot” and “Leprechaun 4: In Space.” Brian’s new filmmaking memoir and manual, “Adventures in the B Movie Trade,” is now available on Amazon.
IT: When I saw your trailer for the book, I got really excited because that first long interview we did, you were just dropping science left and right about smart ways of working with low budgets. Like you told me how you were able to cover a big meeting around a table with lots of actors and still make your day on your TV movie “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis”. I imagine the book is packed with stuff like that.
BTS: It is, it is. I actually go through that particular technique in the book. It’s 580 pages, and which maybe close to 200 involve photographs. That has enabled me to provide some visual illustration to some of the points that I’m making. The book of course has all the pictures in black and white. The Kindle version has all the pictures in color. I just thought the cost of printing the paperback in color completely would have doubled its price and made it inaccessible to the pay grade of a lot of young film fans who’d love to read it and enjoy it, but they can’t afford a coffee table book. So it is pretty much the size of a coffee table book. [laughs] It’s quite big. Should you buy it, you’ll see for yourself.
IT: I plan to, as soon as I can. Is it in bookstores, or only on Amazon?
BTS: Only on Amazon. It’s impossible, really, to get a regular publisher, and it takes a year to get in the queue. That’s the problem.
IT: When did it occur to you: “I’ve got some wisdom to drop.”
BTS: It occurred to me about two years ago. I had a couple of projects that didn’t go forward. I thought, “Okay, I have at least six months ahead of me before something could fall back into place. Why don’t I just write about my experiences?” So if I never make another film again, I will pass on some wisdom and experiences to those who are just starting out in this business. And while my career spanned an era that has basically ended, the whole recorded entertainment business, be it the cinema or your Netflix screen, that whole world economically has been turned upside down by Covid. And now if you want to make a movie obeying Covid protocols, it adds 25% to your budget. That means certain kinds of movies are simply not going to get made, and the mega-budget movies are going to have to get made on much slimmed-down budgets, and many movies will be made with virtual backgrounds. They’ll be made in a small studio with possibly even robotic cameras, and these big LED screens will provide the background of a living room or the background of an epic battle scene that’s been digitally created. You’ll be walking along the street having a conversation with somebody, and you’re basically walking on a little treadmill below camera, and you’re being photographed live against an LED screen where a camera has recorded a similar walking pace, the background past which you are walking. That has been pre-shot, that’s the plate, and the actors are brought in to carry out the scene that allegedly takes place out of doors, with this little sort of fan maybe blowing the hair or whatever. That’s just an off-the-top-of-my-head example. I thought I would write my experiences for movie geeks and general film fans who always look at the DVD extras. And they want to know how things are done. I go into the creative process, the politics of the creative process, and just my own creative taste in all aspects: photography, direction, visual effects, how to get performances. Hopefully It is both educational and amusing. Nobody wants a didactic work. I think it has to be kind of anecdotal but still provide a portrait of what drives a director, and this director in particular.
IT: Hopefully the readers will revisit your work.
BTS: I think they might. My work has undergone a kind of rediscovery in the last ten years due to a documentary that was made called “Not Quite Hollywood” (2009). I think you saw it, didn’t you?
IT: Yeah, I love that movie. [laughs] It was a real eye-opener.
BTS: Yeah, people have thought, “Ooh, that’s interesting.”
IT: Isn’t that the same guy (Mark Hartley) that did the documentary about Cannon Films (“Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”)?
BTS: Yes, he’s done three; he’s done “Machete Maidens Unleashed”, the Cannon one, and I know he’s trying to get one going on Robert Stigwood. “Not Quite Hollywood” introduced me to, let’s say, a viewership that was increasingly getting its entertainment online, via YouTube and the emerging streaming services, from 2010 onwards. So my work that was previously gathering dust in movie vaults was now more accessible. Much of it was initially pirated and put on YouTube, not that I really cared at that point [laughs]. I’ve now managed to get “The Man from Hong Kong” (1975), “Deathcheaters” (1983), “Danger Freaks”, “Stunt Rock” (1980), “Frog Dreaming” (1986), “BMX Bandits” (1983), “The Siege of Firebase Gloria” (1989), “Turkey Shoot” (1982) – they’re all out on legitimate Blu-rays, with commentary, etc. In the ones where I’m a profit participant, I do participate. So there’s a profile that Mark Hartley’s documentary gave me. It encouraged me to start writing cinema essays for various online cinema publications, and then I thought I would finally write a book that takes my journey from the womb, so to speak, where I’ve somehow swum through my umbilical cord and had caused a knot in it when I was delivered. The doctors were kind of shocked; the blood flow would have been cut off and I would not have made it. So, as I say in the book, another day or two and the world would have been spared “Turkey Shoot”. [laughs] But it would appear the world is very happy to have had “Turkey Shoot” now. It was reviled by the critics at the time, but now it’s considered to be a really interesting film and a political film.
IT: “Evil Dead” was considered a video nasty in the UK when it came out and now it’s on Netflix.
BTS: I’m not making much money on the book, but hopefully it will reach an audience that will appreciate it. It gives them a different perspective on a career that started in England, went to Australia, then went to America and Canada. I’ve worked all over the world; I’ve worked in Asia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. I’ve shot in South Africa, France, Italy and Israel. I’ve learned a lot from different cultures of filmmaking, and so I’ve tried to pass some of that on through the book.
IT: Regarding the title: you don’t object to the term “B-movie”. Roger Corman said the term is outdated and that he never shot a B-movie in his life.
BTS: Well, if the book has an underlying theme and a message, it is [that] “B-movie” is a badge of pride as much as “A-movie” is a badge of pride. Because it’s still an exercise in professionalism, defining what a particular audience wants, and giving it to them. In my case, giving it to them in spades. I concentrated on the action market initially, so I diversified into horror and into children’s films, so I’ve worked across the board. I’ve done a docudrama on 9/11 with Timothy Bottoms as President Bush; I did that in 2004; in 2003, we shot it. And that had to be played totally straight, and that was appropriate. Whereas a lot of my films have a sly sense of humor or a deliberately campy approach. I see no shame in making a B-movie, as long as it’s a good B-movie. As long as it’s a B-movie that delivers the goods for someone who wants to watch that particular subject matter.
IT: Shifting to now, is everyone in your family okay?
BTS: We’re okay. We know of people who have had it, and there have been some people who died, but the family group is basically untouched.
IT: What have you been watching while you’ve been quarantined?
BTS: Well, I have been watching “The Boys”, which is on Amazon Prime. It’s this really controversial sci-fi fantasy series that turns the whole superhero franchise upside down, so the superheroes are in fact part of a whole fascist conspiracy that [laughs] apparently was originally developed by Hitler. [laughs] And they have been genetically altered, they have these superpowers, but they are in fact operatives of a giant company. They create super-terrorists so that they can be superheroes and go after the super-terrorists and keep the general public afraid of the super-terrorists. They remain the heroes of the country and of popular culture. And they make movies about themselves and they have huge merchandising, and they dominate American culture, along with, shall I say, muscular Christianity. All these heroes are Christians. It is basically a way of satirizing the current state of affairs. The Superman avatar, let’s say, in “The Boys”, his name is Homeland, and he can just fly all over the place and he can cut people in half with his laser eyes. And he’s becoming more and more Trump-ian with every episode. So there’s a great deal of criticism of popular culture and current politics in “The Boys” and while it steps a little over the line with some of the extreme violence, it is nonetheless a really interesting show, with a lot of smart writing.
IT: Kevin Smith has been talking about it a lot on his podcasts, but just that he likes it. You’re the first person to tell me what it is.
BTS: Well, he would really appreciate it, because it is counter-cultural. It shows the dark side of these franchises, culturally speaking: how they can affect us. And at the same time, it has its cake and eats it, too.
IT: There’s been a lot of good stuff along those lines, like HBO’s “Watchmen” and “The Old Guard” on Netflix.
BTS: I liked “The Old Guard”. Well, I love anything [Charlize Theron] does. I loved “Atomic Blonde”. My viewing is eclectic across the board. I’ll tell you something I really liked, which is “The Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. Ohh…incredible photography of this octopus, and its relationship with the man who’s taking the footage. The trust that slowly develops between the guy who is basically free-diving – he’s not wearing an aqualung, because the noise of it would be off-putting. He’s become like a fish. He develops his ability to hold his breath for a long time.
IT: Got one more?
BTS: Well, the golden oldies are worth revisiting. My wife and I have been revisiting a whole lot of classic American musicals that you can find on Prime, “Oklahoma!” being one. It’s an interesting piece because you look at it with revisionist eyes now, compared to what its sensibility was in the 50’s when it was made. And the classic Disney “Mary Poppins”, not the remake. Disney allowed a great deal of criticism of the banking industry, and of cold-blooded bankers. In the scenes with all these stiff, regimented bankers in the last half of Mary Poppins”. And I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty interesting for him, in his way, to do that, because he was a staunch, right-wing conservative. And yet he still allowed criticism of the pursuit of money for its own sake. The worship of money. He allowed those characters to reflect that criticism of the worship of money. It didn’t occur to me at the time in the 60’s when I saw it, but retroactively.