An Interview MARK SAVAGE By Ian Jane
You can tell in that picture above this text that Australian moviemaker Mark Savage is a man with something to say. With the recent Subversive Cinema release of Savage Sinema From Down Under, a fantastic retrospective look at Savage's two decade plus career that includes an amazing selection of supplements and rare super 8 films, we figured now was as good as time as any to pick his brain a little bit. Here are the results...
How did you get your start as a filmmaker and what kind of training/education helped you get into the industry?
I am totally self-taught. I bought a Chinon Super-8 camera when I was 15 with money I’d saved by working part time at McDonald’s. The first film I ever made was Methusarla, Guardian of Hell, which is included in the Savage Sinema From Down Under box set. I learned by doing and making mistakes. My first thirty films were cut in camera and shot on reversal stock. I did filmmaking at school, but it was real entry level stuff. My real education was on weekends. Every weekend for years.
You made a lot of short films with your family and friends in your younger days. Did you find that this experience helped when it came time to shoot your first feature and if so, how?
Shooting constantly helped my aesthetic sense. David Cronenberg once said that he feels physically ill if he sees a badly composed shot. I developed this same neurosis early on. It’s the same neurosis I have about making sure brutality looks real and punches look like they connect. A major component of any good film is organization. A finished film is the result of thousands of small tasks completed. To make a feature requires enormous stamina and preparation because once the machine gets moving, it doesn’t stop until its mission is accomplished. My early films taught me much about casting, too, and working with actors. I feel that my job as a director is to cast well, then create an environment in which the actors feel free to take risks. I learned at the beginning that if you cast badly, the bad performances are your fault and they will destroy your movie. You only have yourself to blame. My early films also taught me about the importance of coverage and shooting in such a way that the footage can be easily edited. You learn many tricks when you have directed, shot and edited. Each stage must support the next.
How do you feel about the fact that Mauraders was bootlegged but never given a proper release until recently via Subversive's Savage Sinema From Down Under boxed set? Do you feel the gray market copies helped get the word out or do you see it as nothing more than blatant theft?
Bootlegging is theft, and that is its own issue. If a film is out there, its presence can be helpful, but one should not overestimate the value of having an illegitimate version of your film doing the rounds. Mostly it is heart-breaking because you sacrifice so much to make a movie (especially a low budget one) and others are benefiting financially from its exploitation. MARAUDERS was distributed to a handful of European countries, but a naïve decision on my part saw a 1” master placed in the hands of pirates in the US. I learned a very hard lesson and am now much more careful.
Some of your work feels like it might have been influenced by some of Wes Craven's early material, as both Mauraders and Defenceless play with some of the same themes as Last House On The Left. Did his work influence you at all?
I have a great deal of admiration for Wes Craven, and count THE HILLS HAVE EYES as one of the best and most intelligent horror movies ever made. I read about the premise way before the film was ever screened (censored) in Australia, and it really spoke to me. Craven, like Romero, has made many intelligent horror films. These men do not see the genre’s limitations; they see its possibilities. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT did influence me in terms of its unabashed nihilism, but William Fruet’s THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE (a.k.a. DEATH WEEKEND) was equally influential. The portraits of the thugs, who are led by Don Stroud (in an amazing performance), affected me as a filmmaker and viewer. The film was also extremely well shot and directed and the action scenes were very kinetic. The line spoken by Stroud, “You goddamned fuckin cunt!”, just after he’s been run off the road by Brenda Vaccaro, opened a gate in my own psyche that hasn’t closed since. The film did not hold back, but it was also balanced in terms of how it portrayed the good characters.
Your work gets pretty intense at times and it doesn't shy away from the ugly side of human nature. Have you ever had any objections from any of the actors or actresses in terms of what they would or would not subject themselves to for your films?
I have excellent relationships with actors. They end up becoming my friends. They are my collaborators. They know my films can be rough and harsh, but they also know that every decision I make is justifiable in terms of what I want to say. When an actor agrees to work with me, they know that they may enter hell of heaven during the production. For many, that is the buzz. It is certainly the buzz for me. It’s a Creative Contract. I treat actors with respect and do not intimidate them. We work on the characters and we establish the parameters. Nobody is surprised if they are asked to disrobe, spend an hour in the cold ocean, or be beaten to within a cinematic inch of their lives. Every film is an adventure, and the best actors are up for the challenge. I like actors who are constantly growing and seeking new dramatic avenues.
Defenceless in spots almost feels like a Japanese pinky violence movie and the female lead character almost seems to be related to Meiko Kaji's Female Convict Scorpion/Sasori character that a lot of cult movie aficionados love so much. Any thoughts on that? Were you influenced by the Japanese exploitation films of the 70s and 80s at all?
I have been influenced by “pinky violence”, and Meiko Kaji played a watershed character in Japanese cinema, a character I have admired for a long time. I love the renegade subject matter of 70’s pinky violence, in particular the films of Yasaharu Hasebe (ASSAULT JACK THE RIPPER, RAPING!), Koyu Ohara (WHITE ROSE CAMPUS) and Norifumi Suzuki (SEX AND FURY, CONVENT OF THE SACRED BEAST, BEAUTIFUL GIRL HUNTING). Norifumi’s movies, while brutal, are also beautiful. They changed the way I addressed the subject of violence. I am no longer content with any movie unless there is deep contrast of its basic elements. It is contrast that makes each element more effective and emotional. If there is no contrast, you have wallpaper. But there are many great Japanese films that contributed to my own approach – MUDDY RIVER, PRINCESS OF THE MOON, ANGEL GUTS – NAMI, ONIBABA, HANNA-BI, VIOLENT COP, FLOWER AND SNAKE, to name a few.
What other director's have had an impact on your work? S.N.A.K. obviously pays homage to John Woo and even David Lynch in spots.
I have been a great admirer of Walter Hill. His HARD TIMES is one of the greatest movies ever made. I also have much passion for SOUTHERN COMFORT, THE LONG RIDERS, THE WARRIORS, 48 HOURS, EXTREME PREJUDICE and the incredible STREETS OF FIRE. Volker Schlondorf’s THE TIN DRUM was a massive influence on me, as was Rene Clement’s FORBIDDEN GAMES, Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA, Agnes Varda’s VAGABOND, Jan Sverak’s THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, Gary Sherman’s RAW MEAT and Luis Mandoki’s GABY – A TRUE STORY with the great Liv Ullman and Frank Loggia.. Naturally, like many filmmakers, I have enormous respect for Kinji Fukasaku, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott (TRUE ROMANCE is a masterpiece), Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Gasper Noe, Ringo Lam, Nacho Cerda and Todd Browning. As for Woo and Lynch, they are such unique filmmakers with distinct, strong voices. What modern genre filmmaker has not been “corrupted” by them?! I also must credit Quentin Tarantino for using his talent and clout to popularize the greatest aspects of Asian and European cinema. That a film such as KILL BILL, which is an affectionate amalgam of many “foreign” genres, can be given a mainstream release, shows that there is hope for mainstream cinema. Finally, I must acknowledge the influence of my dear, talented filmmaking friend and sometime collaborator Tomoaki Hosoyama (WEATHERWOMAN), whose contribution to my celluloid “education” has been considerable. Hideshi Hino’s manga, the novels of Jack Ketchum, James Herbert and Richard Laymon have also shaped my sensibilities. Mostly, of course, it’s been life itself, and the more shit you have to deal with, the more you have to say. It’s funny how life’s bullshit focuses your point of view.
Stained, which is included in the boxed set, deals with a real life crime from your native Australia. You made this feature for Australian cable. Any more TV work on the horizon?
Some of the very best drama these days is on TV, especially in America. I would love to work on something like THE WIRE, THE SHIELD or THE SOPRANOS – character-based, hardcore drama with feature film aesthetics and low budget feature shooting schedules. I have no TV on the immediate horizon, but my interest level is high. STAINED was a terrific experience, and a challenge in terms of storytelling economy because the material available would fill three features. Personally, it’s whom I work with first, project second. You have to work with people who are on the same page.
Stained, and a lot of your other films, deals with some pretty vile subject matter and it doesn't really hold back in that regard. Have you ever run into any censorship issues in your career?
In Australia, some of my films have been censored. You can’t release a film un-rated there, so you have no option but to cut if you want a rating. The “R” is more like the American NC-17, but they are tougher on violence than sex. I have mixed the two elements now and then, so it’s been problematic. The second part of the rape in MARAUDERS was cut. The mere subject matter of STAINED worried the network because they’d seen my other films and were concerned that I’d treat the material explicitly. I didn’t, of course, but it wasn’t necessary. In fact, it would have harmed the drama if I had done that. I don’t agree that suggestion is always better. Each case must be considered on its own individual merits. Representing something graphically is the best choice sometimes. It all comes down to balance and how one element impacts on what surrounds it. Filmmaking is like accounting in a sense. Tonally, the books must balance. S.N.A.K. was cut to earn an “MA” rating, which is the equal of the American “R”. My action-comedy THE MASTURBATING GUNMAN was refused registration (banned) because of a group sex scene the censor insisted was a rape. It wasn’t, and the point of the film’s humor was lost on them, so I decided not to fight that battle. GUNMAN’s market was Japan, anyway.
Why the emphasis on sex and violence in so much of your work and why so much dark subject matter? Is it simply what entertains you or a representation of your world view?
I really don’t know for sure.. Sex and violence are cinematically provocative, but they become boring on their own. They demand context. I like shoot-outs as much as the next guy (or gal), but, ironically, I love a film like HARD-BOILED for its more lyrical passages as well. It’s a very beautiful film. The world is filled with darkness and light, and I like to contrast the two. My life is heaven and hell. My films reflect that. I am very optimistic, but that optimism exists alongside chaos. Sex is fascinating to me for it possesses an amoral power. There is a great line in Augustin Vilaronga’s IN A GLASS CAGE: “Horror can become fascinating”. Perhaps that sums up the attraction of the dark. All I know is I am sympathetic to the darkness, and it is necessary to illuminate it in order to best showcase the light.
You've worked with your brother Colin pretty regularly and even your sister at one point. Siblings don't always get along, did tensions ever arise between you guys while working together or was it more or less smooth sailing?
I have not worked with my sister. You’re probably referring to Susie Savage, who is credited on MARAUDERS. She was my wife, and because she was a professional chef, she provided catering for my first few features. She was an still is (we maintain contact) an excellent cook. My brother is my best friend, and we only bicker when on set about minor details. He is also anal about staging violence, so our interaction is often about that. On DEFENCELESS, he refused to take stills for one scene because he felt I had crossed a line. Later, when he saw the scene edited (the terrible flash cuts of a child kidnapped and abused), he came back to his senses. He often sits in on the editing of fight scenes and shoot-outs because he has a very good eye and understands cutting action well. We cut many Super 8’s together for many years, so editing is second nature to us.
Pretty much all of your work has been shot and produced in Australia. What's the independent film scene like over there and is it as hard to get a project moving as it is in North America?
The independent scene in Australia has changed. When I was making MARAUDERS in ’86, we were alone. Although all my films have been financed privately, most Australian films have a large portion of government funding. The government funding bodies have never seen what I produce as viable or something they’d like to do. They have a charter that, until recently, excluded genre films. With some exceptions, Australian funding bodies and distributors (in the past) have treated horror and action pictures with the respect reserved for porno. Because films such as WOLF CREEK have made money for Australian funding bodies, they are becoming more legitimate. It doesn’t mean people understand them any more; they are simply seen as being financially attractive. I have made most of my films in Australia, but I have never felt that I was part of any “industry”. I always felt more at home in the US and Japan, so that is why I have been so nomadic.
You've accomplished a fair bit in the film world already, but you've got to have a sort of holy grail out there of some sort, an actor or collaborator you'd like to work with at some point. Who is it and why?
Frankly, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished too much at all. I feel like I’ve served a very long apprenticeship. Despite my reputation, I am very performance-focused, very actor-focused, so, yes, there are many “names” I’d like to work with. Ones who immediately spring to mind are Maggie Cheung, Deborah Unger, Brad Pitt, Ian McShane, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, James Spader, Johnny Depp, Santiago Segura, Chow Yun-Fatt, Anthony Wong, Andy Lau and Jennifer Aniston (oh, yes, because I KNOW there’s some very interesting darkness there).
Two of your other, more recent features - Fishnet and Trail of Passion (starring Ron Jeremy!!) - weren't included in the set. Was that a concious decision or a rights issue. Any plan for these to hit DVD in the future?
It was a conscious decision not to include these formulaic programmers in the box set. They’re films I worked hard to bring some style and atmosphere to, but they are also products of a specific market demand. They were interesting experiments, and they’re out in Europe. Fishnet had a minor US release, but I’m sure they’ll both show up in improved condition some time soon.
How did you become affiliated with Subversive Cinema? You worked on the making of documentary for their Blue Murder boxed set before the Savage Sinema set came out, was that the beginning?
Norm Hill, at Subversive, contacted me about producing the supplements for BLUE MURDER, which is probably my favorite piece of Australian drama ever. Some US viewers have found the accents a little difficult to navigate, and I accept that, but the work itself is exemplary. Some of the best acting I’ve ever seen is showcased in this series. After I had completed the job, Norm asked to see some of my work. After he watched DEFENCELESS, he called me and said he felt traumatized. Then he offered to distribute it. The other titles followed. Norm has been the best distributor I have ever dealt with – courageous, incredibly well informed, honest (which is rare) and loyal.
How does it feel to finally have your work properly represented on DVD/home video after all these years?
It feels great. It’s been twenty years coming, but the timing is right. The films, hopefully, do represent growth. I know there have been a lot of changes in me since MARAUDERS and up to DEFENCELESS and STAINED. The Subversive presentation is something I never dreamed of, and I am very happy that Norm asked me to add my earliest Super-8 efforts to the box and STAINED, a drama I’m very proud of.
What plans do you have for the future? Any new projects on the horizon?
I plan to get better at what I do and take a long overdue vacation with a beautiful woman. On the nearest horizon is a cannibal horror flick (PEARCE), a sequel, and a very dark piece about a child murderer called HEAVEN’S LADDER. And my dream project, BEYOND THE PALE, will happen very soon. That’s all I can say for now. A busy man can always make time, I guess (if he’s organized).
For more information on Savage Sinema From Down Under, check out the Subversive Cinema website, www.subversivecinema.com
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