By Anita Malhotra
Director Lee Demarbre’s films are infused with a passion for B movie genres: Hong Kong action flicks, horror movies, musicals, Blaxpoitation films and Mexican wrestling films, to name a few. A 16mm short – Harry Knuckles and the Treasure of the Aztec Mummy – launched his career in 1999, garnering a Slamdance film festival award. Demarbre followed up with a string of genre-bending films, from the low-budget 16mm cult film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001) to the big-budget horror film Smash Cut (2009).
Anita Malhotra spoke with Demarbre on April 19, 2011 at Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre, where he is co-owner and programmer.
AM: When did you start making films?
LD: When I was very young, when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, that was the first film that made me think, “This is something maybe I can do when I grow up.” It wasn’t the movie itself, it was the poster, because the poster said, “From the makers of Jaws and Star Wars.” The poster made me think, “Oh, that’s a profession. The guy who made Star Wars and the guy who made Jaws are teaming up to make Raiders. That’s gonna be a good movie.” And I learned about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and starting buying books and reading them at a very young age.
AM: How old were you when Raiders came out?
AM: When did you actually start shooting films?
LD: Spielberg’s story of how he got into filmmaking as a young boy is inspiring. He borrowed his Dad’s camera. He just started shooting stuff in 8mm. And I said, “Dad, do you have a camera I can use? And he’s like, “No.” My Dad was a military guy.
I started playing on tape recorders. I’d record movies off the TV, or plays, and I’d edit them. I would take Monty Python albums and I would choose one of the characters I wanted to be and remove all that dialogue and then record my own dialogue. In a way I was constructing a narrative, you know, without visuals.
When I moved to Ottawa I wanted to afford a video camera, so I started working at this Chinese restaurant in town that was controlled by the Italian mob. I was washing dishes and they were running prostitutes out of the kitchen. It was kind of scary. These cooks got into a fight one day and one of the cooks cut off the fingers of the other cook, and I was asked to replace the guy with the missing fingers. It was really frightening. I was young, too. I was working with pimps and gangsters. But as soon as I afforded my camera, I quit. So now I had a camera. I could use my VCR as a playback machine and I could edit on my camera. One of the first things I did was take movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and cut my own trailers, having fun like that.
AM: What were your earliest movies like?
LD: I met a friend in high school who shared the same passion, so we started what we called “Basement Wardrobe.” Basement Wardrobe was either my basement or his basement and we would raid our parent’s wardrobes, and based on what we found in the closet, we would create these little skits. Just a few years ago I digitized a lot of them to DVD – 88 short films that I made before I finished high school. Just before I graduated, we made a short feature film called The Hacker on VHS. We both worked at a video store, and I had friends who worked at other video stores, and we were able to release this movie independently in video stores.
AM: Did you go to film school?
LD: After The Hacker, I went to university to take film studies, and for four years I didn’t pick up a camera. After four years of not being hands-on with film, I really needed to get my hands wet again. I joined the Independent Film Cooperative in Ottawa because I discovered the films of Frank Cole, and spent two years shooting a five-minute short film on 16mm called Harry Knuckles, which was a fake trailer for a non-existent feature-length film.
After Harry Knuckles played in all these festivals in Canada, I shot Harry Knuckles and the Treasure of the Aztec Mummy, a 30-minute film on 16mm. This time we got into Slamdance and we won the Spirit of Slamdance Award. That win, and getting on the Mike Bullard show, and going to the Cannes Film Festival – because we became part of the Best of Slamdance and we showed our film at the Egyptian Theatre in L.A. – was the kick in the pants to say, “This could be a life thing.”
AM: How did film genre influence your films?
LD: When I was taking film studies and learning about international cinema – the French New Wave and all this national cinema – I also discovered, in my leisure, Chinatown and Chinese video stores. I rented a movie called Police Story starring Jackie Chan. I was blown away by this movie because Jackie Chan is both an amazing entertainer and incredible filmmaker. And I found out that he had made many other films that I needed to catch up on. I asked my friend’s father where I could get them and he said, “Let’s go to Chinatown.” He dropped us off, and I lost my friend because my friend wasn’t a big movie buff and I got immersed. I’d spend hours in the back rooms getting through not only all of Jackie Chan’s films but discovering John Woo and Sammo Hung – falling in love with Hong Kong cinema and this action style.
So, I said, “I’ll try to make a Hong Kong action movie.” I didn’t end up making a Hong Kong action movie, but a melting point of a lot of things. There was a film society at university and I found Bettie Page, and I found Russ Meyer, and I discovered Blaxploitation films. Discovering Black cinema changed a lot for me because a lot of it was independent and made in New York City without any permits, and I learned about guerrilla filmmaking. So Harry Knuckles – instead of becoming that Hong Kong action movie that I wanted it to be – became all these other things. It was a melting pot of genre. And I guess that’s why when I followed up Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter with the feature film Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace, it was hard to peg and it was hard to put it in a video store and say, “It’s an action film, it’s a horror film, it’s a musical, because it’s all these different things.
AM: What led you to make Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter?
LD: I went to Toronto and I bought John N. Smith’s 16mm Steenbeck, which is a big machine – bigger than a refrigerator, and is what Canadians used to edit film. Transporting the Steenbeck to Ottawa in a cargo van with my writer, Ian Driscoll, who wrote the screenplay for Harry Knuckles and the Treasure of the Aztec Mummy, said the four words in the truck on the way back listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. He said, “Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter” and I said, “Wow, that sounds like a really great movie.” And quite literally, the title came first, and we wrote a movie around the title. While I was editing Harry Knuckles, Ian wrote the script. In May 1999 we started shooting, and it came out in 2001.
AM: How did you get to Cannes with the film?
LD: I went with another filmmaker, Derek Diorio. He was going there to the market to pitch and raise money for his movies and he invited me to stay with him and piggyback off one of his screenings in the film market. So we had three market screenings of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. What was better than the market screenings was what we came up with as a publicity stunt. From Ottawa to Nice, in an airplane, I carried a 20-foot wooden cross in a ski bag. I put it in my hotel room for a week, and then I convinced this woman from Toronto to come to Cannes, so she became my lesbian vampire. One morning we set up the wooden cross on the beach at Cannes and I crucified this lesbian vampire. And man, did we ever get attention. Christina Ricci was promoting her new movie on the beach at the same time and we took all of her press. So that led to me to my U.S. distribution deal with Music Video Distributors. And Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter became the best-selling DVD in Music Video Distributors history.
AM: Up until that point, had you financed your own films?
AM: How did you end up making these films?
LD: Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace caught the eye of an Ottawa producer by the name of Robert Menzies, and Robert was trying to convince me to make an action film in Jamaica. So I spent a year trying to make this action movie called Black Kissinger. While Robert and I were at the American Film Market in Los Angeles trying to raise money for it, I noticed that Vampiro was wrestling in Anaheim, the only American city where you can see real Mexican wrestling. I said to Rob, “Do you know who the biggest name is in Mexican wrestling right now? He’s a guy by the name of Vampiro. And Vampiro’s from Thunder Bay. And Vampiro’s life story is incredible. It involves drugs and crime and rock ’n’ roll, and I always thought it would make a good narrative film. So I convinced Rob to come to Anaheim and meet Vampiro and see if we could pitch him on this idea of making a movie about his life. Vampiro says, “Let’s not do a movie, let’s do a documentary. I’m about to go to Europe on this European tour. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll tell you my life story.” So weeks later I was in Europe making this documentary about Mexican wrestling. Technically, pound for pound, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever made.
While making Vampiro we took 30 days off and made The Dead Sleep Easy. Ian wrote the script fast and we found ourselves 30 days in Guadalajara, Mexico. Dead Sleep Easy was the first time I’d made a film with a Hollywood movie star. Rob said to me, “I think we can afford one guy. Who would you want to play the villainous character?” And I said, “Martin Kove from The Karate Kid and Rambo.” And we hired him. It gave me a taste of making a real movie with a real budget.
AM: What about your latest film, Smash Cut?
DL: That’s sort of my dream project. I’ve mentioned I was inspired by Mexican wrestling movies, Blaxpoitation films, Hong Kong action movies, but the one thing I left out is the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Herschell Gordon Lewis was a Florida filmmaker who invented the gore movie. He was someone I really admired and got to know over the phone, and then going to Florida and him inviting me to his house. I always told him, “I’d love to make a movie for you.” I wanted to make a tribute film, but at the same time I wanted to make a movie the way he would make a movie. I can’t go back in time, to Florida, in the ‘60s, but maybe what I can do is at least put myself in that state of mind.
I made Smash Cut with a lot more money than I thought I would ever have the chance to make it with. I was able to afford David Hess in the lead role, from the original The Last House on the Left and Michael Berryman from the original The Hills Have Eyes. I was able to cast Ray Sager, who played the Wizard of Gore in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore, and then finally, kind of out of left field, when looking for a female lead, I went to Los Angeles and met with Sasha Grey and asked her to be in the film. And she graciously offered to be a part of it just before her career exploded. I think what attracted her to it was it had nothing to do with her taking her clothes off or sex. She’s not making pornography anymore, and she’s going down this road that has nothing to do with that. But everyone thinks there’s a mistake in the movie that Sasha Grey’s not naked.
AM: What’s different about directing a big-budget as opposed to a low-budget film?
LD: It’s less hands-on. I always find I have too much crew, I always feel there are too many people on set, there’s a little less control – there’s other cooks in the kitchen. And that’s fine too, but it’s a little bit more fun when you’re the chef.
AM: What are you working on right now?
LD: I’m working on two different things. One of them’s an Italian co-production. One’s to be shot entirely in Los Angeles. So they’re big ideas. If those films happen, that’s good. If they don’t, then maybe I will go back and make a sequel to Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Everyone’s dying for us to make a movie on a shoestring budget again and go back to having fun making movies. You know, I made Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, my first feature-length film, and all the movies that came after it, but if you go on IMDB and look at the number of people who have seen and voted on them, nothing comes close to Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, the little independent film that did.
For more information about Lee Demarbre and his films, you can visit his website, Odessa Filmworks.