Tuesday 30 October 2012

An Interview with SHIVER producer Robert D. Weinbach

“There’s a lot of obstacles in the way of making a movie; it’s like fighting a small war.”

Shiver producer and screenplay writer Rober D. Weinbach began his film career in Spain as producer of Platero & I (based on the Nobel Prize winning book by Juan Ramon Jimenez). Subsequently, he produced and co-authored two other films in Spain. One, Hallucination Generation starred George Montgomery and a young actor by the name of ‘Danny Stone’, aka Danny Steinmann, the director of Friday the 13th part V: A New Beginning.  The other film, Cauldron of Blood (aka Blind Man’s Bluff) starred the legendary Boris Karloff. Amongst his many other projects Mr. Weinbach co-authored and produced The Mutations (aka The Freakmaker) starring Donald Pleasence and Tom Baker, and directed by Academy Award and New York Film Critics winner, Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, African Queen and Sons and Lovers).  Today he lives in Los Angeles and is a Directors Guild and Writers Guild member. Shortly after the screening of Shiver at the Raindance Film festival in London I caught up with the films’ remarkable producer and screenplay writer.

How did your involvement with Shiver come about?

I had a slate of other films that I was developing and someone gave me a copy of the novel ‘Shiver’ by Brian Harper as a kind of recreational read. I read the book through the night, turned off all the phones [high praise indeed coming from a film producer], and read it through the next day – all 420 pages! It’s truly the most compelling, nail biting suspense woman-in-jeopardy piece that I have ever come across. It’s beautifully written in a cinematic style. I pursued getting the rights to the book, which I got.  

And what’s been the reaction from Brian to the film version of his novel?

He’s thrilled with the execution of the film because very often when books are made into movies often times a director or an author will eviscerate the material, but with Shiver my job as a screenplay author was to take a 420 page book and put it into a 94 page screenplay format whilst maintaining the integrity and veracity of the book.

Any problems translating a novel set in 1992, a pre-digital world before mobile phones were common place?

Not really. The story is the thing. It’s no big deal, cars are cars are cars; know what I mean?

I believe at one point or other there were various high-profile directors attached to the project. How did eventual director Julian Richards come on board and what were some of the issues you faced in getting ‘Shiver’ made?

There’s a lot of obstacles in the way of making a movie; it’s like fighting a small war. I’ve been involved in this business for a long long time. We went through many different permutations... It was an interesting odyssey to go through.  Maybe it required someone like myself who has Cancerian tenacity to eventually get the film made! I’m from St Louis Missouri, and I wanted to do the film there. We looked at Detroit, then Iowa, then Canada. I don’t know whether we were directed by God, or destiny – but we finally got it made in Portland Oregon  and it was a joy to work there, those people were hard-working and we had great locations and background.

Have you ever considered directing?

Yes I have. I’m very much a ‘hands on person’. Yes I would love to direct, but I’m only really interested in directing a project I’ve written, so it remains to be seen. But I love the idea of collaboration...

That’s very interesting because during the director’s Q&A at the Raindance Film festival, Julian Richards was asked whether he saw ‘Shiver’ as being a Julian Richards’ film and he answered no, he saw it as a Robert D. Weinbach film...

It was collaboration between Julian and myself and you want to support the director. Julian made a tremendous contribution to this film. He directed this movie; he set up every single shot. I’m the one who picked the cast on this movie frankly, I picked the cast and I said to Julian you can talk to all these people do you want them in the movie? We met Casper together. And I wanted to have his approval. This was not some chopped liver kind of movie for me. It’s something that is my baby and every single ingredient in the picture is something that was chosen by me. For example, I take full responsibility for bringing in Richard Band (composer).  But when I work with a director you turn the picture over to the director in terms of shooting the picture.
We would have loved to have had much more location preparation, but with Julian sitting there in London I had to go up to Portland and pick out a lot of locations in advance. I had a feeling that Julian would be more than happy because I think I have a great aesthetic eye for these things and it wasn’t done haphazardly.  [The scenes with Valerie Harper were shot in Robert’s house].
An old friend of mine suggested an academy award winning guy who did prosthetics. You should have seen my dear wife going over to this place!  There were incredibly realistic mangled bodies and severed limbs everywhere. I said we’re making a low budget movie and asked what sort of deal could we do to get four severed heads. Well we got them, but we then ended up having to take them in a box through the x-ray machine at the airport and the security people are looking at 4 severed women’s heads in the box and they were probably thinking ‘do we arrest these people?”.
There was so much contribution that I did make to the film. I shot second unit footage (because Julian didn’t have a second unit).  Julian was here working on the editing of the film for 3 months and then he had to go back to the UK and I had to finalise all the final editing on the film as well as putting the music in and doing the colour correction with the cinematographer. At the end of the day the audience doesn’t give a fuck about who directed the movie or not the audience cares about what they’re seeing on screen and whether the picture is going to be engaging  to them.

And how happy are you with the finished film?

Well, you’re never totally happy, but given the limited resources and the obstacles and hurdles we had to overcome I think we ended up making a picture that looks pretty good. I just thank my lucky stars we did the movie and that I got the experience of how to make movies in today’s digital age.  I met some wonderful people and I give Julian tremendous credit for having shot the movie in 18 days when we really should have had 25-30.

Your star in ‘Shiver’, Danielle Harris, has been gathering awards and plaudits across the globe for her performance.

I tell you that girl; she is a ball of fire. I really take my hat off to her because she’s not only a terrific actress but she spends a third of her life promoting her projects and she’s got a good fan base the world over.

Now I’d like to ask you about ‘The Mutations’ (aka The Freakmaker) which you shot in London – including Battersea Park Fun Fair.
Another of my pet projects.  And it allowed me the great pleasure of spending almost one year in London. It was a homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks [one of my all-time favourite films] which I’d first seen when I was 12. 
Robert, how on earth did you persuade the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff to direct it?

I don’t know. When I was 10 years old I crawled under the tents to go to the freak show when the carnival came to town. And I remembered them vividly. I wish there’d been video cameras at the time. I said to Jack, “I’m going to be bringing over these real human anomalies from the US”. I met them at Heathrow airport: ‘The Alligator Skin Woman’; ‘Popeye’; ‘Pretzel Man’; ‘Frog Boy’.  Such memories! The Alligator Skin Woman’s husband was playing cards one day and he shouted to his wife: “If you don’t shut up Esther we’re going to make a set of luggage out of you!” I was walking down the street in London with Popeye (who actually does pop his eyes out – he would pop one out when he saw a good looking chick walking past).

And of course there was also Donald Pleasance; Tom Baker and Brad Harris [associate producer on ‘Shiver’].

Donald Pleasance was a total trip, he was absolutely great. When Donald was being ingested by the half-human half-plant, he was making this ungodly sound and I’m standing there laughing my ass off and I said “Donald where did you get that from?” He said, “What do you mean Robert that was some of best work!" I was looking for an actress to play the role of the prostitute that Tom Baker visits, and one agent calls me up and said “Mr Weinbach, would you consider Glenda Jackson for this role?” I almost fucking fell off my chair! I said, “Are you serious? What are you talking about; this is a 3 minute part!” The mere fact the guy recommended Glenda Jackson totally blew my mind! That would never happen in Hollywood!
And before ‘The Mutations’ you cast Boris Karloff in ‘Cauldron of Blood’ (aka ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’). 
Well, let me tell you, before I got to Boris Karloff I had dinner with Claude Rains. As a boy I was not afraid of Dracula or Frankenstein, but Claude Rains’ version of Phantom of the Opera scared the shit out of me – so it was a big deal for me! Then I talked to Basil Rathbone. I also had conversations with Edward G Robinson about the role. And I even had a conversation with Jimmy Cagney believe it or not! But here’s the interesting thing, if I’d had any other of those actors playing that role we would never have finished the movie because they all died while the movie was being made. And Boris Karloff was the oldest one!
His agent was a total asshole. (I was 26 years old at the time) He said, “Boris will never do this movie for the amount of money you have to offer him”. I managed to get his London phone number from the doorman at his apartment in the US, I called him up and he invited me over. So I took my $148 bucks out of the bank, charged my credit card and flew to London the next day. I went to his apartment; his lovely elderly beautiful wife opened the door. Boris and I sat down and talked for about two and a half hours. He was on oxygen; he had a brace on one leg; and he looked at me finally and he said: “Robert, fuck my agent I’m doing the picture!” 
He asked for three things: a wheelchair for when he got off the plane in Spain; an oxygen tank (he only had one lung), and he wanted a double to do the fight scene at the end of the picture. I said of course. Well, he did not use the wheelchair when he got off the plane, he walked off. He only used the oxygen tank a little bit, and he refused to have a double and did the fight scene himself (he was in his 80’s). It was the second to last movie he did. God bless him.
But the kicker on this story, I’d had The Freakmaker script for some time. – Whilst I was making Cauldron of Blood in Spain, Vincent Price was also making a movie in Spain. Vincent was from my home town St. Louis Missouri, so I invited him over to my apartment for dinner and he loved the script. He wanted to play the role played eventually played by Donald Pleasance. But he had the same agent (the asshole) as Boris Karloff and the guy called me up and said: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Vincent will never do your movie because of what you did with Boris Karloff!” (What I said – give him a job?) Unbelievable – that’s an American agent for you!

So what’s your next project?

Well, I’m a huge fan of Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz – and I’m also fascinated with voodoo.  A few years ago I put together a film called “Voodoo Suite”. It was a supernatural picture with Raul Julia being possessed by a drum demon. Nicolas Roeg was going to direct it. All the posters were printed and we were at the Cannes Film Festival. Four months before we were ready to shoot the picture Raul Julia came down with stomach cancer and died very shortly thereafter. So, now my desire is to resurrect that project with the right director and actor. It’s a dear project to me.

Robert, I wish you every success, and when you next come to London let’s go for a walk through Battersea Park...

And have a pint together!  

Danielle Harris won a third Best Actress Award for SHIVER at CineBraga in Portugal recently and Robert won the Best Screenplay Award and a Special Honor Producer Award at Braga.

Interviewed by Paul Worts

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