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Exclusive Interview: John McNaughton remembers “HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER”

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Growing up during the late 1960s, John McNaughton, in ear-ringing solidarity with the vast majority of his hepcat peers, blared the radio nigh constantly, reveling in a singularly revolutionary moment in rock n’ roll history. But the future auteur wasn’t only in it for the latest pop subversions—he also adored what he describes as the “fabulously lurid, assaultive” commercials for the latest indie horror films.

“Those radio spots led you to believe the movie in question had crossed a threshold in terms of shock value and you would just have to go see that film,” McNaughton tells FANGORIA. “You had to know for yourself. You had to experience it. And I always saw our little movie as part of that lineage. We were certainly trying to cross the line. We’re going to smash the boundaries. We’re going to go where no horror film has gone before.”

And this was precisely where McNaughton’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER—shot for $110,000 in Chicago on 16mm during the summer of ’85 and now restored in a deluxe thirtieth anniversary Blu-Ray edition via Dark Sky Films—went.

“When we first showed HENRY in Chicago at the little screening room of the company that funded it, a local guy I knew was there—he’s now a major league film producer, but I won’t mention any names—and after the screening the lights come up, the room is silent, and I walk over to him and ask: ‘Hey, what’d you think?’” McNaughton recalls. “He just goes all Ralph Kramden on me—Homina, homina, homina!—then finally blurts out, ‘You can’t do that! The ending is all wrong! You can’t just let them off scot-free! The police have to catch them!’ It was like, ‘Thanks for you input,’ but too late now. It’s done, you know?

“That’s basically when I learned not to put friends on the spot asking what they thought of my movies,” he adds with a chuckle. “Now, if you don’t like something I’ve made, you can tell me if you please, but the only thing I’m going to pressure my friends to say to me these days is, ‘Yes, I’ll come out and have a drink with you.’”

The MPAA, alas, wasn’t any kinder than McNaughton’s pal: The ratings agency branded the film with a scarlet “X” and telling the director, “There is nothing you can do to cut this movie. We object to the overall moral tone”—essentially leaving the film in distribution limbo for years.

For McNaughton it was a brutal crash back down to earth after a gloriously liberated shoot in which he was allowed to fly perhaps too close to the blood red sun.

“There was never any creative interference—we made the movie exactly as we pleased and it exists today exactly as it existed the day we finished it,” the director says. “I sent the script to Waleed Ali, but he didn’t have time to read it so he just gave me a check for the first installment of the promised hundred thousand and we went out and shot the movie. I’d worked on commercials and other things, but HENRY was the first feature film set I was ever on—and I was the director! If I had been on another set I might’ve realized that making that film under those circumstances on that budget isn’t possible. But I hadn’t, so we just did it.

“The great thing—and also the sad thing—is that I just assumed this was the way it would always be,” he continues. “At the time I didn’t know what a preview screening was—and I wish I’d never learned! The perspective of making that film completely to our own likes was a great experience that I unfortunately never got to relive…”

After HENRY finally ascended from the Little Indie that Could [Get Censored] to legit Cultural Phenomenon status, McNaughton got himself an agent and, then, Hollywood doing its best impression of Hollywood, a biblical deluge of bad horror film scripts rained down on his head.

“They were the standard stuff,” McNaughton says. “Everything we tried not to do with HENRY.” He eventually settled on the underappreciated, largely forgotten 1991 sci-fi monster flick THE BORROWER.

“I chose THE BORROWER because I loved the conceit,” McNaughton explains. “This alien is sent to earth and his head explodes—which is a lot of fun in and of itself—and then he has to takes heads from various human beings to get around. So now you can go through the society—you take the head of a doctor, of a homeless person, of, you know, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. It’s a fun concept I hadn’t seen before and also a metaphor for what the actor does.”

Of course, mo’ heads, mo’ problems. Or at least mo’ complexity on set—enough to perhaps make McNaughton wonder if he had been burdened with a new (and not altogether welcome) head.

“On HENRY on any given day we had a crew of between three and five,” he says. “My first day on the set of THE BORROWER there were seventy-five people. I said, ‘What do they all do?’ Well, I found out—a lot of them don’t do anything except get paid.”

Unfortunately, McNaughton found himself in an outside-his-control film business snarl once again: One morning after a late night of shooting, he arose early and drove to the offices of the company financing the production in an old converted hotel right off the Sunset Strip near the Chateau Marmont. Payroll had ground to a halt and McNaughton set out to inquire after why. Pulling in, it was clear something was amiss—the parking lot, usually jam packed, sat empty.

“I went to the back of the building and the door was literally swinging on the hinges,” McNaughton says. “I walked in—as anybody could have. There was nobody in there. They had taken their computers. They had taken…everything, really. They just disappeared in the middle of the night. They were gone. Turns out I’d been working for some really slippery people.”

McNaughton did finish the film. It screened at the Music Box in Chicago a couple years back and killed. “I very much like the film,” he says. “It’s not like HENRY at all. It’s not a serious film. It’s comedic and fun and funny and crazy and gory and goofy, but nobody saw it.”

Amidst this dream-deferring churn, however, someone had seen HENRY. And this particular woman, who liked the film very much, worked for Martin fuckin’ Scorsese. And she’d showed it to Martin fuckin’ Scorsese himself, who loved it.

So when she called McNaughton to let him know that Martin fuckin’ Scorsese had a script he wanted him to check out, it was a landmark moment—not to mention a fairly stupefying reversal of fortune: A few years earlier, McNaughton had caught wind of a Scorsese produced Jim Thompson adaptation coming down the pike, he had asked his agent to send a copy of HENRY to Scorsese’s office. The thought makes contextual sense—Thompson’s classic psychopath-exploring novels can easily be viewed as a HENRY progenitor—but it did.not.fly. “An assistant watched it—or watched as much as she could stand,” McNaughton says. “She called my agent back and basically said, ‘How dare you?’”

Stephen Frears went on to land an Oscar nomination for directing THE GRIFTERS. But McNaughton wasn’t finished.

Yet even under these later, friendlier circumstances, the echoes of HENRY still sounded. “Before my first meeting with Marty I went to a haberdasher and bought a brand new Armani suit—spent more money than I even had to get it, actually,” McNaughton says. “My thinking being, you only have one chance to make a first impression. So I showed up and Marty looked at me and just sort of said, ‘Oh.’ I think HENRY had him expecting a drooling maniac to show up!”

Nevertheless, in fairly short order McNaughton was signed to direct Bill Murray, Uma Thurman, and Robert De Niro in the 1993 crime romp MAD DOG AND GLORY, a gig that in some ways closed the circle between what once seemed a distant dream and achievement.

“I remember very clearly going to a theater with some of my friends,” he says. “It was the beginning of multiplex—a duplex; two theaters—and we all went to see the first movie, which I think may have been THE EXORCIST. Afterward, we realized there was no barrier between the theaters. I guess on the North Shore they lived on the honor system. Those of us from the South Side, on the other hand…” The pause tells the tale. “There was a pay phone on the other side of the lobby and we all one by one told the usher, ‘Oh, I have to make a phone call’ and snuck in to see MEAN STREETS. It was an amazing experience—the characters looked like us, dressed like us, talked like us. We could’ve been in the film. The movie just really hit us and Scorsese became a great inspiration right from that moment.”  

Though not a huge financial success, MAD DOG AND GLORY received plenty of critical acclaim—and served another purpose as well.

“God bless FANGORIA, because the magazine really championed HENRY at a time when things could have gone either way, but I was also happy to be able to get myself out of the horror ghetto,” McNaughton says. “Now, I don’t mind going back. I just like to not be stuck. You know, I was one of the directors on the first season of MASTERS OF HORROR and there were some really, really gifted filmmakers in that group who got stuck in the genre, who got stuck with studios only thinking of them one way, who got limited in a really unfortunate manner. I’m sure they all love telling a good horror story, but that doesn’t mean that’s always the kind of story you want to tell.”

Considering all the tribulations during production and release, McNaughton acknowledges seeing the level of acclaim and influence the film has three decades on is gratifying.

“You can never predict when you’re in the middle of it what’ll happen,” McNaughton muses. “HENRY could just as easily have been like the BORROWER disaster. Who knows? A million things could’ve happened to sink it. But somehow it hung in there and stuck around. The film has power, and it seems to still have it, so that’s all good for all of us. Unfortunately, many people are gone. Tommy Towles died last year. Richard Fire died last year. Quite a few people that were part of the core group that really worked so hard and gave so much are no longer with us. I was just thinking about that the other day, sitting there, working with Richard Fire, working with Tom and the group. Now, thirty years later…gone. Just memories—but very good ones.”

It’s true. The world keeps turning. And society has evolved—or perhaps devolved, if that’s how you’d prefer it—and that colors how today’s audiences take in HENRY.

“One thing I have noticed that maybe indicates some sort of a change is that when we first screened the film thirty years AGO, no one ever laughed—never, not a peep,” McNaughton says. “I often told people in interviews, ‘Watch the movie three times. By the time the shock wears off, you’ll find that there’s a good deal of humor in the film. It’s pretty funny.’ But I suppose it was so shocking thirty years ago no one dared to laugh because they thought someone would condemn them. At the recent Chicago Film Festival screening, though, there was quite a bit of laughter. I don’t know if it’s an indication of just the general coarsening of our society or what. I really don’t know. It’s an interesting development, whatever the cause.”

Today, McNaughton is preparing to open his own production company to pursue his own projects as well as others he finds worthy. A long-gestating collaboration with Bill Murray called THE KING OF COUNTERFEIT is edging closer to lensing.

“The last film I made, THE HARVEST, was an interesting piece, because there was no studio, there was no company,” he says. “There was a single investor, and so we made the film, and I’m very proud of the film. It has a fantastic cast. But we had no company, we had no marketing apparatus, and we had to sort of take it out ourselves and shop it—the equivalent of taking an orphan around to various houses and saying, ‘Will you please take this child? Take our child from us.’ It’s very difficult, in other words.

“The man who put up the money unfortunately died last year,” he continues. “He had made fortune in the vitamin and supplement business, and he was a really cool guy, and he was a great salesman, and he sort of taught me that making the films—what I’ve always done and known—is great and important, but it isn’t everything. THE HARVEST was the first time I had to think about selling a film, which I had no idea whatsoever how one does that. It wasn’t what I’d spent my life doing. Now that I’ve done that, and learned those lessons, these projects that for me have been orphans could have new life breathed into them. That’s what I aim to do. That’s just the way it gets done, so here we go.”

Wherever he goes from here, HENRY looms large—and McNaughton is okay with that.

From my perspective, I only had one shot and a hundred grand to make my first movie, and I wasn’t going to do what some people I knew did…which us get a little money and try to make a romantic comedy that would compete with the studios, and just look third rate in comparison,” he says. “No, I was going to do everything in my power to make sure whoever saw it would remember it. My belief was, Don’t try imitate something else. Make something so original, so intense that people will be forced to take notice.

About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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