MOVIES : The Horrors of Filmmaking : The creators of 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' survive distribution nightmares--again--to get another quirky project on screen

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer.

Making a film is hard enough. But getting it to the screen can be even harder. Ask director John McNaughton. It took three years for his controversial debut feature, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," to find a distributor before making the 1990 Top 10 list of Time magazine, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune. Then "The Borrower," his second feature, had to survive the bankruptcy of one production company and the foot-dragging of another before a tiny Chicago revival house saved it from cinematic oblivion.

"The Borrower," a $2-million movie that opened to excellent reviews and promising box office at Chicago's Music Box Theater last month, scans the urban landscape of the United States from the vantage point of an extraterrestrial. For crimes committed on his planet, the alien is condemned to "de-evolve," wandering Earth and becoming that most vile of creatures--a human being. But de-evolution is an imperfect process and presents the ongoing threat of physical deterioration. When his head keeps exploding, the creature "borrows" a series of new ones from a motley bunch of characters ranging from a redneck deer hunter to a black homeless person--inheriting the mind-sets and foibles of each.

In both films, the dramatics of the "chase"--so central to action and horror films--are subjugated to McNaughton's chilling portrait of a bleak and violent world. Not only doesn't "good" always triumph over "evil," but we--as human beings--are encouraged to mull over into just which category we fall.

Film critic and historian Richard Schickel calls "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" "the single most brutal movie ever made, one which makes no concession to moral outrage. Because its outward style matches the inner landscape of a psychopath, it's really good film making." And Newsday's Joseph Gelmis observed in a 1990 review: "By refusing to justify its killings, or to make them more palatable--that is, cartoonish--'Henry' offers itself as a realistic antidote to Hollywood's escalating fantasy violence."

McNaughton thumbs his nose at Hollywood conventions in "The Borrower" as well. "The monster is the star of the piece, the cops (Rae Dawn Chong and Don Gordon) hapless Earthlings chasing after what they think is a serial killer," says the 42-year-old McNaughton. "I try to violate traditions and encourage people to use their brains."

No more so than in his next feature, "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll"--a $2.2-million filmed version of Eric Bogosian's darkly satirical one-man stage show, opening in Los Angeles Sept. 13--which again finds McNaughton on raw, unorthodox terrain.

"We aren't knocking popular entertainment, but our goal isn't 'Ernest Saves Christmas,' " says Steven A. Jones, 41, McNaughton's longtime collaborator and producer, by phone from Chicago where the team is currently shooting "Mad Dog and Glory," a Universal release produced by Martin Scorsese. "Both of us share a cynicism in the way we look at the world. We don't celebrate the darker side of humanity, but we are interested in it."

Their experience with "The Borrower"--a kinetic, tongue-in-cheek offering McNaughton calls "a rock 'n' roll horror movie aimed at young kids with channel switchers"--didn't challenge their predisposition. The troubles began in 1987 with the financially strapped Atlantic Releasing, a division of the small independent Atlantic Entertainment that was producing the film. "There were two buildings on the Sunset Strip filled with folks driving BMWs and Mercedeses," McNaughton recalls. "It was the company's only release, and people were in a panic, focused in on our project in an attempt to justify their jobs. I felt like I was making a picture for a sinking ship."

In fact, he was. The company went under two weeks before "The Borrower" was completed in December, 1988, and after a year of court battles, Lou Horowitz--the financier who lent Atlantic the production money for the film--was awarded the project. He cut a deal with Cannon International, a division of MGM-Pathe, to distribute the film abroad. At home, the plan was to go straight to home video. That is, until Cannon Pictures, an independent production-distribution entity bought by Christopher Pearce from Pathe last fall, stepped in early this year.

But hopes for a theatrical release of "The Borrower" were short-lived. Cannon not only made no effort to peddle the film but, last May and June, turned down requests from the Boston and Toronto film festivals to screen it. The two existing prints were being screened for foreign buyers and domestic theater owners, and the company had little interest in making more. The company did agree, however, to release a print to the Seattle Film Festival, where it played to an enthusiastic audience on May 25.

"I can't understand Cannon's attitude," McNaughton says. "It's like being in the car business and only selling to people who knock on your door."

Jack Fiman, executive vice president of marketing and distribution for Cannon Pictures, concedes that "The Borrower" fell through the cracks: "Unfortunately, we had bigger fish to fry, and the movie just wasn't a top priority. When we screened it for a number of art-house buyers in April, no one was particularly excited. Perhaps we misrepresented it, but there's more to releasing films than throwing them out and hoping people come. You need publicity people, a campaign, press kits . . . which is very time-consuming and expensive. We didn't have an adversarial relationship with McNaughton, we just had different agendas."

Enter the Music Box Theater, a Chicago art house where "Henry" played for 18 months of midnight shows. For most of that time, it was the only theater in the country showing it. Eager to help a local boy make good, the Music Box's booker Sandy Chaney had been trying for two years to get his hands on "The Borrower."

Theater owners collect a movie's box-office receipts and give a percentage--generally 50% to 60%--to the distributor. When Cannon turned down the Music Box's request for a print, Chaney came up with a novel variation on the theme: The Music Box would advance Cannon the $1,500 required to strike a new print against "rentals," the box-office cut the company was due to receive. No investment would be required on Cannon's part. If the movie took off, the company would be riding high. If it failed, it would walk away with a free print.

"We realized that the success of 'The Borrower' would rise and fall on how productive we were," Chaney says. "There were no coming-attraction previews, no way for us to pre-sell the movie. We made up our own newspaper ads and posters and sold the movie through Music Box calendars placed in alternative papers and coffee shops."

Critical kudos created good word of mouth. "After two features . . . McNaughton has emerged as the most spectacularly pessimistic filmmaker to come along since the heyday of the film noir masters--Robert Aldrich, Edgar G. Ulmer, Samuel Fuller--in the 1950s," raved the Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr, who gave the film--which he termed "no less astonishing" than the director's "remarkable debut film 'Henry' "--3 1/2 stars. Lauding the movie's "sharp, deadpan edge" and "corrosive" wit, the Chicago Sun Times' Lloyd Sachs, in a three-star review, expressed the hope that McNaughton's viewpoint wouldn't be "neutralized" by the Hollywood machine.

Twelve hundred people turned out for the first five shows--particularly impressive since the movie was shown only at 10 p.m and midnight. Four days after the opening, management booked "The Borrower" into a full-schedule, open-ended run. "Like 'Henry,' this has been a long uphill battle--full of stress and strife," McNaughton says. "Now we'll see if the film has the power to walk on its own legs."

Chris Carlo, co-owner of the Music Box, is confident it will. "My gut tells me that 'The Borrower' will be even more successful than 'Henry,' " he says. "You never know, though. McNaughton is beyond the reach of mainstream Hollywood. It's not 'safe' to like his work like it is to like 'Terminator 2.' Since critics are in the business of staying in business and tend to jump on the bandwagon, no one is setting the pace."

Encouraged by strong box office and reviews, Cannon is finally doing its part. Visualizing the movie primarily in midnight shows and college towns, the company has struck 15 prints and scheduled runs in Washington, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland and St. Paul, Minn., in the next two months. Negotiations are also under way for "Borrower" play dates in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver. The film will not only appear at the Toronto and Boston film festivals this month but at Italy's Turino Film Festival on Nov. 8, and will tentatively be released on cassette on Halloween.

"McNaughton is clearly the hero of this story," Cannon's Fiman says. "He so strongly believed there was an audience for his product--and there is, in fact, a small group of moviegoers aware of his prior success, waiting to see what he'll do next. Had it not been for him and the Music Box, this film could have fallen into Nowhereland, lost in the ozone layer, as so many films are."

With victory--or, at least, theatrical exhibition--firmly in hand, the McNaughton-Jones team is turning its sights to Avenue Pictures' "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll." It wasn't a project they sought out. Bogosian, an admirer of "Henry," had sent the director a fan letter--the first one he received. McNaughton never responded but did give Bogosian a call the next time he was in New York. The two hit it off, embarked on negotiations, and in November, McNaughton shot the movie in five days.

It was "Mad Dog and Glory," with a cast headed by Robert De Niro, Bill Murray and Uma Thurman, however, that propelled the McNaughton-Jones duo into the big time.

And, again, it didn't come easy. McNaughton's agents had tried unsuccessfully to get a cassette of "Henry" to Scorsese when he was producing "The Grifters"--a project in which McNaughton was interested. Because Scorsese's assistant hated "Henry," she never passed it on. A couple of years later, McNaughton tried again, this time with more success. Scorsese evidently liked what he saw, because he gave the director a call.

"Mad Dog and Glory," written by Richard Price ("The Color of Money," "Sea of Love"), features De Niro as a timid bachelor cop--ironically dubbed "Mad Dog"--who saves the life of a loan shark (Murray). As a gift, Murray, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian in his own nightclub, "gives" him Glory (Thurman), who's tending bar in the club to pay off a debt her brother rang up.

"It's a love story," Jones observes, "and a character study of a friendship that goes bad. It's probably our most palatable film yet for a mature, wide audience, but it's not a total departure. The action takes place in a world that is definitely not a happy one."

The Chicago-born McNaughton (an introspective, irreverent only child) and the Brooklyn-reared Jones (son of a Communist interracial couple) met seven years ago through mutual acquaintances who attended the Illinois Institute of Technology. Jones had majored in design and animation at the school; McNaughton was a 1972 graduate of Chicago's Columbia College, where he had studied still photography and TV production.

When their friends went on to form MPI Home Video, McNaughton (whose post-college jobs included factory worker, shipbuilder, silversmith and traveling carnival employee) was brought in to design an animated logo; Jones (a musician who paid the rent by directing animated commercials for McDonald's and Cap'n Crunch cereal) was hired for the animated credits.

In 1984, low-budget horror films were selling well and MPI commissioned the two to make "Henry" for the home video market. McNaughton, as director and co-writer, was to handle the actors and the words. Jones, as producer, co-wrote the music and concentrated on the visual end. "Since John is the designated director--the auteur --I often get overlooked," Jones says. "But it's not as though one has the directorial vision and one picks up the money. In fact, we're a creative team --much along the lines of the Coen brothers."

Jones recalls that the two decided that "Henry" would be no ordinary slasher movie. What they were after was an art-house film. "It was a nervy thing to say," he admits. "But, as it turned out, that's just what happened. 'Henry' was the most artistically realized thing we could do . . . but it was also a dark, brutal experience. I figured they'd either flock to our door or put us in jail."

"Henry," a documentary-style feature based on the life of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, was shot in 1986. Vestron Pictures was interested, but bowed out in the face of legal action from Lucas. Atlantic Entertainment then came aboard, only to jump ship when the MPAA awarded the movie an X rating--the death knell at the box office. The breakthrough came when filmmaker Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line"), guest director at the 1989 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, selected "Henry" as one of his two picks at the event. The film generated controversy, garnered critical attention and was finally distributed by tiny Greycat Films.

"Without doubt, Henry was a very damaged person," McNaughton says. "But I wanted the viewers to explore how different he is--or isn't--from the rest of us. It's healthy to poke around in ourselves, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Human beings are capable of horrific violence."

"Henry" went on to become a cause celebre in Hollywood, deemed "brilliant" by one school, "garbage" by another. Every sleazy horror script was channeled to McNaughton and Jones but--economic hardship notwithstanding--they "passed." Without a job or a paycheck (and still owed 25% of his fee for "The Borrower"), McNaughton was forced to move in with his cousin and float a couple of loans. Jones, last October, was down to his last $500. Though a host of top-of-the-line film offers have come along since then, the duo is approaching Hollywood with extreme caution.

"I hope we always see ourselves as outsiders," Jones says. "I don't want to get complacent and settle for manufacturing films instead of creating them. We're backing into the mainstream--swimming in an ocean of people with different agendas. Trying to keep the business end as low-key as possible in a town in which content is not necessarily related to success."

McNaughton too identifies with the fringe. "I want to keep the road bumpy," he says, "going for the best story, not necessarily the biggest picture. Though I'm open to studio financing, our ideas are fairly controversial--not the broad-based, happy-ending stuff the studios look to for a 'return.' "

On the horizon: a film based on William S. Burroughs' "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz," to which they own the rights, and an amusement park noir murder mystery called "Neverland" that they have optioned.

Jones has recently chucked his job directing commercials to focus on filmmaking full time, which, as he is the first to acknowledge, is a small leap of faith.

"After 'Henry,' nothing astounds me," he says. "First, we couldn't get the movie shown to save our lives. It comes out and we're wined and dined by every agent and studio in town. Our $112,000 film gets nominated for six different Independent Spirit Awards alongside films like 'To Sleep With Anger' and 'The Grifters.'

"Luck always plays into it to some degree, but where, you ask, are the rules?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
49°