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An Interview with Cult Movie Maverick, Bill Lustig by Edwin Samuelson

We here at DVD Maniacs were lucky enough to be able to talk to Bill Lustig about his work and his company, Blue Underground. Bill was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to give us some thoughtful answers.  We're proud to present this interview for our readers.

Why did you decide to leave Anchor Bay and set up Blue Underground?

[Bill Lustig] In July 2001, without revealing confidences it became clear that Anchor Bay's parent company The Handleman Company was formulating plans to either sell or shutter Anchor Bay by the end of 2003. Knowing what unproduced projects Anchor Bay had on its release schedule, I saw my company's work ending by the end of 2002 since we work a year or more ahead of Street Dates. So, rather than wait for the inevitable I decided to use the year to transition Blue Underground from a DVD producer into a DVD producer/distributor while continuing to complete the Anchor Bay jobs. I'm grateful for the opportunity Anchor Bay gave me to learn the DVD business.

You recently moved from Image Entertainment to Ryko to handle your distribution. Any reason for this?

[Bill Lustig] The term of my Image Entertainment agreement ended in March. But more importantly, I never felt that Image as a company ever appreciated or gave the Blue Underground DVDs any special attention. With Ryko Distribution, Blue Underground is a big deal. As a company Ryko shares the same enthusiasm for the BU DVDs - they're fiscally responsible fans. Also, their successful music business mirrors our DVD business so it was easy for them to "get" what BU is about. To quote Bill Hein, Ryko's DVD division leader, "Our companies' DNAs are a match." I have high expectations for the future of this relationship.

Could you tell us a little bit about what you do as the head of Blue Underground? Give us an example of a typical day in the life of Bill Lustig.

[Bill Lustig}: I orchestrate a very talented production and sales team while focusing on acquisitions and financial matters. A typical day is on the phone & e-mail by 4am and in the office by 7am. Most people find this odd until I point out to them that our most important resource of titles are in countries which are 8-9 hours ahead of CA time. In fact, I find it odd that more American companies that do business internationally don't start their days earlier - it seems unintentionally arrogant. I believe that my early hours work habit coupled with traveling has given me a competitive edge on acquisitions and finding the best source elements when I was working with Anchor Bay and now with my company Blue Underground. I firmly believe in the old expression: "the early bird catches the worm."

So far you have released Euro-Crime, Spaghetti Western, Horror and Sci-Fi titles. Are there any other genres that you'll be delving into anytime soon?

[Bill Lustig] Next year, we'll be releasing some different genres: the British crime films MADE IN BRITAIN and SCUM, the grindhouse classic FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, the very offbeat cult film BAD BOY BUBBY and the Giallo Collection Vol. 2. We also have later this year our mammoth MONDO Collection.

Can you tell us what films will be in your Giallo Collection Vol. 2 ?


What can we expect to see on your upcoming DVD of Fight for Your Life?

[Bill Lustig] The DVD is scheduled for June 2004 so it's too early for us to know. All I know is that we'll be transferring from the film's recently-discovered original negative.

Since you have started Blue Underground, you have released some very unusual titles like Quiet Days in Clichy. How do find such obscure films?

[Bill Lustig] I became familiar with QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY at the time of its NY theatrical release in the early '70s by its trailer with the catchy Country Joe song (I was never able to find that trailer for the DVD). I was offered the rights to the film from the US owner who never expected that I would be familiar with his film. Although I never saw the film, I vividly remembered the song 30 years later so I impulsively bought the DVD rights. I then became fascinated by the legal history of the film and what it represents to the artistic freedom we take for granted today. The QUIET DAYS DVD defines what Blue Underground is about, which is producing top quality DVDs with informative Extras of worthy undiscovered cinema treasures.

I was very pleased to hear that you acquired the rights to Dead and Buried, which happens to be one of my favorite horror  films of all time. What made you decide to give this title the deluxe 2 disc treatment?

[Bill Lustig] DEAD AND BURIED is also one of my favorite genre films. Regarding the 2-disc treatment of this and other BU titles with 6.1 DTS-ES/5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, it has less to do with the Extras than with our desire to present the feature at the highest bit-rate possible given all the multi-channel audio tracks. In the case of the 2-disc SALON KITTY, it was a matter of the feature/Extras running time. I know first-hand that there are companies who needlessly do 2-disc sets to jack the price up - we don't.

With upcoming releases of Emmanuelle in America and Salon Kitty coming from BU fully uncut with the adult scenes intact, do you anticipate any problems getting these releases in stores like Best Buy?

[Bill Lustig] Sure I expect problems with the big chain stores but thank God there are other outlets for purchasing DVDs in this country besides the big chains. Blue Underground will never intentionally release any film cut or censored!

Which of the Blue Underground titles released so far have you been the most pleased with and why?

[Bill Lustig] QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY because we did what was right for the integrity of the DVD knowing that at best we might breakeven financially. This project tested my resolve not to compromise a Blue Underground DVD even in the face of losing money.

Are there any titles that you worked on that you thought would be a success, but were surprised to find out that they didn't live up to your expectations in terms of sales?

[Bill Lustig] Not really.

You have redone quite a few titles that you previously worked on with Anchor Bay like Django, Daughters of Darkness and Vampyres. Can we perhaps expect you to one day revisit any other titles that you worked on in AB days?

[Bill Lustig] I licensed Anchor Bay about 100 titles which rights have begun reverting back to me. I have plans to revisit many of these films as the terms expire including the early Hammers.

Will you be revisiting any of the Dario Argento films that you worked on with Anchor Bay such as Phenomena, Tenebrae, Demons 1 and 2 and Deep Red?  If so, can we expect new anamorphic transfers and the end credits to Deep Red restored ?

[Bill Lustig] Yes. But I don't have Street Dates yet.

Shortly after the release of the Spaghetti Western Collection, the internet was ablaze with rumors of the set being pulled off shelves, recalled, etc. and there were various theories as to why this was happening. Was there at any time any truth to these rumors or was it all hype? If they were true, what was the reason for the problem?

[Bill Lustig] Without addressing rumors here are the facts. On New Years eve - one week prior to the Spaghetti Westerns Street Date - I received an email from Image Entertainment's legal department stating that they had received a phone call from a since departed Anchor Bay executive stating that Anchor Bay not Blue Underground had the US DVD rights to DJANGO and DJANGO KILL!. Knowing I possessed an April 2002 document signed by Anchor Bay stating that the rights for the 2 films were relinquished to my company and I was on Holiday, I decided that this was a non-issue that I would sort when I returned to my office in LA never assuming that based on an unsubstantiated phone call - not even a written legal notice - Image would take such a position as to stop shipping the 2 titles which they never notified me they intended to do. I only became aware of Image's intent by someone in my office who read that the titles were "on hold" on the internet. I immediately contacted my attorney who presented Image with the appropriate documentation. Image then immediately reversed the "hold" within a week after the scheduled Street Date. That's what happened.

You have worked with Larry Cohen on the Maniac Cop series as director and now you are working with him again, but this time as DVD producer on God Told Me Too, Q and Bone. How do would describe this working relationship?

[Bill Lustig] I love and respect Larry even though there were times many years ago when I wanted to strangle him. Larry is one of the most talented,intelligent, bright people I have ever met in this business and GOD TOLD ME TO, Q and BONE are 3 of his finest films. I feel a great deal of personal responsibility to make these DVDs the best they can be. Larry has given us full accessto his personal collection containing tons of materials for these films, including the never-before-seen aborted 16mm first shoot of BONE which had a different cast

Were angry with Larry Cohen about comments about how he made about how he didn't like the way the Maniac Cop films came out?
[Bill Lustig] I've never heard or read any negative comments Larry ever made about the MANIAC COP films except the 3rd which was a disappointment for both of us. Larry was critical about certain choices that were made on the first 2 films as was I, but overall he was pleased with the final results and their success. In fact, note that Larry hired most of the key MANIAC COP crew members for his later films.

What would be your dream project for a DVD release?

[Bill Lustig] The Sergio Leone Collection - get to it MGM, Paramount and Warner.

Finding suitable elements for a video transfer is sometimes really hard, have you ever had to cancel a release because of a lack of proper materials?

[Bill Lustig] I always check elements prior to closing a license agreement so this has never happened at Blue Underground. It often happened at Anchor Bay.

The internet these days is full of armchair quarterbacks who have sometimes been extremely critical of the work that you have preformed on some of your releases. Does this ever get to you and do you think you are being treated unfairly?

[Bill Lustig] I produce and distribute DVDs - I'm not finding a cancer cure. I like to receive constructive positive or negative critical feedback. We also always internally critique what we've done on each project in the hope of improving. Fans can sometimes take what is just entertainment a bit too seriously.

Do you prefer working as a film preservationist/DVD executive or as a film writer/director? Which role do you think will have a longer-lasting impact on motion pictures, and which is more fun?"

[Bill Lustig] I've worked in the motion picture business for 30 years. I take a blue-collar approach to my work which is to focus on doing the best that I can for the immediate task or challenge in front of me. I've never thought of career goals or the long-lasting impact of my "work." I just like to entertainment people in whatever capacity I'm doing it.

For a low budget horror movie, Maniac has remained remarkably well known. Why do you think that the film has had such staying power with fans?

[Bill Lustig] I believe the late Joe Spinell's disturbing performance and the film's timeless documentary feel has given MANIAC a longevity over many films of its kind released in the same period. But anyone's guess is as good as mine.

I really love the work that David Gregory has preformed on your featurettes, especially on the Joe Spinell Story, which I consider to be one of the best supplements ever put on a DVD. How did you and David hook up and could tell us a little bit about your working relationship?

[Bill Lustig] Many years ago, David contacted me to license the UK Home Video distribution rights to my films VIGILANTE and MANIAC. Shortly thereafter, I hired him to shoot the WICKER MAN featurette. He did such a great job I burned his UK passport and found him an American woman to marry so he wouldn't leave the States. I agree with you that The Joe Spinell Story was incredible work by David.

There have been rumors that you're considering getting back into the director's chair again sometime soon. Any truth to this? If so, any idea what you'd be working on?

[Bill Lustig] My plans are to produce features to be released by Blue Underground. Producers who understand the director's job are in short supply. Besides, I don't think I have the patience anymore - if I ever did - to deal with the day-to-day bullshit directors confront. I prefer to watch the director's back rather than deal with the problems first-hand.

What can we expect to see from Blue Underground in the future?

[Bill Lustig] A move toward producing our own features and acquiring new films.

Special Thanks to Marc Walkow, Chris Poggiali, Mike Gingold, Scooter McCrae, Joyce Shen,  David Gregory and Bill Lustig.

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