interview: jack hill
Cult filmmaker Jack Hill is legendary for several reasons. A graduate of the the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, Hill got his start in horror films, working with Lon Chaney, Jr., Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff, among others. He went on to virtually invent the women-in-prison genre and discovered blaxploitation queen Pam Grier in the process. With Grier, he went on to make some of the most influential blaxsploitation films of the seventies, including Coffy and Foxy Brown.
But what made Hill truly legendary among cult directors was that his films were profitable. All of his movies made money, except Switchblade Sisters, and with its successful rerelease, even that minor blot has been erased from his record.
A favorite of Quentin Tarantino‘s, Hill’s films are enjoying a resurgence on video and DVD as well as on the festival circuit.
Badmouth: What kind of movies did you enjoy when you were growing up?
Jack Hill: I liked the Warner Bros. movies of the forties. That’s my main influence. The noirs and the gangster films. My favorite movie of that time–of all time–s White Heat. It’s the last great American film, in my opinion.
Badmouth: Your father was an art director for Warner Bros.?
Jack Hill: He was a set designer starting at First National Studios around 1925. Then when Warner Bros. bought the studio he worked for Warner Bros. until the early fifties as a set designer and assistant art director–and later as an art director. He did some TV for a while, then he went to Disney and he did all the interiors for Captain Nemo’s submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. He worked on Disneyland. He designed Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Tom Sawyer’s Island–Main Street, stuff like that.
Badmouth: What kind of memories do you have of that time? Did you get to go down to the lot with him?
Jack Hill: Not really, but if they were going to do some interesting kind of special effect–once in a while–he would take me. The best memory I have is that they were shooting a movie called Action In The North Atlantic, which was a war pictures about submarines and freighters–the North Atlantic war. I remember they had these miniature ships and submarines with midgets driving them around this big tank. That was quite interesting. They used midgets a lot in those days.
Badmouth: You worked with him on a few of your films.
Jack Hill: The Big Bird Cage, he actually designed the major set, the “bird cage” itself. An actual operating, functioning model with gears and pulleys and levers and stuff. He was always very good with that.
Badmouth: You went to film school with Francis Ford Copolla–he was in your graduating class–and you guys both got your start with Roger Corman working on Dementia 13.
Jack Hill: [hesitates] Yah, I wouldn’t…Yes, we worked together. Actually, he didn’t finish the picture, and so I was assigned to finish it and write some new material for it. It was too short–finish it; shoot a lot of bits and pieces that were missing and write some new material and direct it.
Badmouth: Roger Corman is a fantastic judge of talent, if nothing else. So many good people that have come out of his studios over the years. What can you learn from a guy like Corman?
Jack Hill: A lot. He was a very, very clever, inventive director. [pause] He knew how to get the most out of every nickel; how to make things look bigger than they are. You learned how to get the most out of a set. That’s what you learned from him, things like that. How to be very, very efficient–the maximum effect with the minimum means.
Badmouth: The first feature film that you both wrote and directed was Spider Baby, and immediately you were working with a legend like Lon Cheney Jr.
Jack Hill: It was a very good experience. I didn’t know much about directing, really. I learned quite a bit from him, actually. With that movie, I was just lucky to get a very, very good cast, that just all “clicked” together. I didn’t really have to do any directing at all. They just kind of took off with it. It’s become kind of a cult film classic. It was just good luck. Shot in twelve days.
Badmouth: They showed it [Spider Baby] here last year, so I saw it for the first time on the big screen.
Jack Hill: Good black and white, you don’t really appreciate it until you’ve seen it with a good print on the big screen.
Badmouth: When you filmed Spider Baby, Cheney had developed a reputation with the major studios because of his drinking problems. What was he like on the set?
Jack Hill: Absolutely wonderful. He was just a real sweetheart. He didn’t drinkï¿½I think he allowed himself to have half a glass of beer at three o’clock to get through the day. The main problem he had was sweating. It was August in a little sound stage with no air conditioning.
The poor guy was suffering, terribly, from what happens to you when you try not to drink and you’re an alcoholic. He was just real professional. I couldn’t ask for anything better. He really loved the script. He loved the chance to do comedy, and wanted to do a good job of it. It was a really good experience.
Badmouth: You wrote a sequel to Spider Baby, Vampire Orgy. Will anyone ever get to see it?
Jack Hill: I doubt that very seriously–but stranger things have happened.
Badmouth: You also directed Boris Karloff’s last four feature films back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
Jack Hill: Yeah. Insane idea, insane idea. I had to write four scripts in such a way that all of Boris’s scenes could be shot in Hollywood, and then the rest of the pictures finished later, without him in Mexico without the sets. Probably, only a Roger Corman education would make you able to do such a thing.
Badmouth: That wasn’t a Corman project, though.
Jack Hill: No, that was a Mexican producer who had this insane idea to try to do four pictures back-to-back with Karloff, shoot all of [Karloff's] scenes in Hollywood and the rest in Mexico.
Badmouth: At the time they were released, mainstream critics were not kind to your filmsï¿½
Jack Hill: [interrupts] They didn’t even go to see them.
Badmouth: But as time has progressed–unlike many of your contemporaries–your films are still being watched. What were the “Roger Eberts” of the day missing, that audiences found appealing?
Jack Hill: I can’t really say, because they didn’t take them seriously. A lot has to do with your expectations when you go to see a film. To tell you the truth, I didn’t read many reviews. Although, some of the reviews were “good/bad” reviews, where the reviewer hated the movie so much and they were outraged so much and had so many terrible things to say about it that it made people want to see it. They would say “This is the worst. Movies like this shouldn’t be made.” That makes people want to go see it.
Badmouth: You made some of the classic blaxsploitation films of the seventies. That whole genre died in the eighties, but it seems to be making a comeback with films like Shaft and Undercover Brother. I understand they’re looking at remaking one of your Pam Grier films, Foxy Brown?
Jack Hill: Actually, Halle Berry is going to star in it and executive produce it for MGM.
Badmouth: Did you have any input in the new version?
Jack Hill: The producers of the film have asked me to be involved. It’s a question of when and if MGM is ready. I’ve been there, done that; so I have mixed feelings about it. It will depend on the circumstances.
Badmouth: How do you feel about the idea of someone remaking one of your classic movies?
Jack Hill: You’re welcome. Go for it. It’s fine with me. I’m very happy–especially, with someone like Halle Berry.
Badmouth: I heard rumors that there was interest in a remake of Spider Baby, too.
Jack Hill: Oh yes, it’s underway. There’s a company in Hollywood that’s interviewing writers right now.
Badmouth: What’s your favorite movie that you directed?
Jack Hill: I’m really, really happy that we finally got Pit Stop out on DVD so that people can see it, because it’s really a good movie. It’s a real art film about stock-car racing, if you can imagine that. I’m very proud of that.
Badmouth: All of your movies have made money–with the exception of Switchblade Sisters, which is now considered a cult gem and was recently re-released.
Jack Hill: It got about 90-percent good reviews in its re-release, which is better than when it was originally released. People didn’t get it at the time, I guess.
Badmouth: What do you think happened there? At the time it was your least-successful film, and right now it’s considered one of your best.
Jack Hill: Well, I was ahead of my time, or people just appreciate things now in a different way than they did then. The audiences at the time just didn’t quite get it. They didn’t know what to make of it, but it’s a different atmosphere now. It’s hard to explain. I don’t get it.
Badmouth: Quentin Tarantino has been somewhat responsible for the rediscovery of your work. He sponsored the re-release of Switchblade Sisters.
Jack Hill: I have a hunch that what he really wanted was to be able to see it on the big screen in a theater instead of on video.
Badmouth: Do you think Tarantino’s support has helped legitimize your work with the critics?
Jack Hill: Oh yeah, I’ve been getting invited to film festivals in France, now. Even the French critics have discovered me. That’s really good. [laughs]
Badmouth: Have you gone over there?
Jack Hill: A couple times. I’m going again this next month for a showing of The Big Bird Cage. It will be an English-language version. The last time I was there they showed Foxy Brown in the French-language version. I don’t know how they translated “mother-fucker.” I don’t know that much French.
Badmouth: That’s interesting. What did you think of the voice they chose to match Pam Grier?
Jack Hill: It’s a strange experience seeing it in French. I don’t know what to make of it. All I can tell you is that the audience laughed at jokes, but they laughed in different places from the English-language version. So the translators had some ideas of their own, I guess.
Badmouth: Getting back to the idea of the “blaxsploitation” genre. Are you comfortable with that word to describe your movies?
Jack Hill: It’s kind of gotten legit, now. It’s kind of like a historical thing that people talk about. At the time that it was going on, it was kind of a negative term. It was just a word invented by a writer for the trade papers, I’m sure. They like to make up words like that. There was nothing demeaning about it.
Badmouth: What do you think happened in the eighties? That whole subgenre really did vanish.
Jack Hill: A few of the films–like mine and a couple of others–showed that there was what they called a “crossover potential,” that a large, white audience would appreciate the movies. So what happened was that the subject matter, black characters and lifestyles, was absorbed into the mainstream films. So there was no longer a need for special black-audience movies, particularly. The characters were integrated into mainstream movies and black audiences went to see them.
Badmouth: Yet we are seeing a resurgence of that type of independent black cinema. Any theories on why?
Jack Hill: Who can understand what happens as time goes on? The fashions? Nostalgia? I don’t know. I’d like to think that people are more open to appreciating qualities that the critics of the time simply ignored. For example, the L.A. Times review of Coffyï¿½the reviewer saw it in a drive-in theater. I remember this particular review said “The audience in the drive-in theater all honked their horns after every dirty line of dialogue.” That was really great. I wish I could have seen it in the drive-in theater.
Badmouth: You have seen a resurgence of interest in your work recently, are you considering returning to Hollywood in a directing capacity?
Jack Hill: I’m collaborating with my wife now. We’re writing scripts on an Academy Award level. I’m going to try to get a picture going. Shooting for the top now. We’re working on screenplays and I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done. We’ve written a couple of romantic comedies and now we’re working on a very intense edgy drama that’s going to win an Academy Award.
This interview was conducted at the 2002 Trash Film Orgy at the Crest Theater in Sacramento, California, before a screening of The Big Bird Cage. The previous year, the Trash Film Orgy showed the Jack Hill classic Spider Baby. For more information on the Trash Film Orgy, visit their Web site.
For another interview with Hill done at the same time check out Retrocrush, the baddest Web site in Sacramento.