Exclusive Q&A: Director David Schmoeller on “CRAWLSPACE”, “DEAD ANGELS”Home,News Ken W. Hanley
As one of the many underrated horror filmmakers to come out of the golden age of terror, chances are you’ve seen David Schmoeller’s wicked work. Schmoeller, the former frequent collaborator of producer Charles Band, delivered such memorable cinematic chillers such as TOURIST TRAP, PUPPETMASTER, NETHERWORLD and CATACOMBS in horror’s heyday. Yet Scream Factory devotees may know Schmoeller as the helmer of CRAWLSPACE, the insane psychological horror film starring the notorious Klaus Kinski and Talia Balsam. Following the release of FANGORIA’s limited edition Scream Factory issue, Schmoeller sat down with Fango to talk CRAWLSPACE, Kinski and what’s lies ahead…
FANGORIA: What inspired you to write something like CRAWLSPACE?
DAVID SCHMOELLER: Well, the final film wasn’t what I originally wrote. The way the project came about was that Charlie Band called me into his office and he had a set in Italy that he used for another film that he wanted to use again. At that point, I had a script I’d pitched to him several years earlier called “THE KEEPER,” and it wasn’t anything like what would be CRAWLSPACE except it was set in a crawlspace. I took the story right out of the news, where in L.A., a guy who had an apartment building where he had four units; he rented one himself, but the others, he would rent to women. He would crawl into the air conditioning system to watch them and one day, he witnesses a murder. So he can’t tell the police because he doesn’t want anyone to find out about these crawlspaces. It ended up that the killer hides the bodies in the crawlspaces, so now he needs to get rid of the bodies.
It was more like a thriller and at the time, Charlie didn’t want to do that. So he asked me if I still had that script, but I told him, “No, I sold it.” So he asked if I could write something else like it, so the first draft of CRAWLSPACE was about a Vietnam Veteran who had been a prisoner of war who is finally released. He comes home and his parents have died, his wife has divorced him and he’s inherited an apartment building that’s falling apart, where he rebuilds his prisoner of war camp like a bamboo jungle. So that was the first draft and we had already started pre-production; I was casting in L.A. and the production team in Italy had already started to build the jungle and some of the traps from the script. But then, Charlie actually got around to reading the script and said, “No, I don’t want to do a Vietnam story. I don’t think the public is ready for that. Let’s make him a Nazi!”
So I asked him, “Well, if the public isn’t ready for a Vietnam story, who are we going to get to play a Nazi?” Charlie then suggested, “What about Klaus Kinski?” So I told him, “If you can get Klaus Kinski, I’ll write you a Nazi story.” So that’s how the final version of CRAWLSPACE came to be how it is. I only had a few weeks to completely shift the project but that’s what we did.
FANGORIA: Did you have any leads in mind for the original version of the film?
SCHMOELLER: Well, back in those days, we had a fixed budget, and a certain percentage of the budget was set aside for a lead actor. I can’t remember how much it was, but Kinski got $100,000, so maybe that’s what it was. But what you would do was that you’d send a script out to agencies that represented actors, and they’d send back a list of actors who would do it for that percentage. So then you’d look for actors in a certain age range and try to get the one that worked the best. When it came to Kinski, we were just casting Kinski, and he would do just about any movie if you could pay his fee.
FANGORIA: Was there anything in the “Vietnam” version of the story that you specifically wanted to see in the final version of CRAWLSPACE?
SCHMOELLER: Well, I think the reason I was interested in doing a Vietnam film was because I was a big anti-war activist in the ’70s. But once it switched, there wasn’t much I could use. The only thing that’s in there is that in Lori’s bedroom in her penthouse apartment, there’s a scene where she’s falling asleep and she’s reading a book. When we see what’s in the book, it’s open to that iconic picture of the officer shooting a Vietnamese citizen. So the shot starts on that picture and that’s the only comment on the Vietnam war in the movie.
FANGORIA: As it’s been well documented, including on the Scream Factory release of the film, working with Klaus Kinski on CRAWLSPACE was a nightmare. Conversely, was there anything worthwhile from the experience of working with Kinski?
SCHMOELLER: Well, working with Klaus Kinski really was a nightmare because he was totally out of control. It wasn’t like he was out of control every moment of the day; he would just snap and you wouldn’t know what it would be that caused him to snap. He was not a co-operative actor, so I couldn’t do anything to get him to do anything I wanted. He only wanted to do one take because he didn’t like to speak English, so I had signals worked out so if I wanted to do a second take, I’d have the camera department or sound department saying, “Oh we missed focus on that, can we do another take?” or “We have a sound problem, can we do another one?” Klaus would do that, but he wouldn’t do anything if he received a note or something.
I really didn’t have much control over what he did, even though I liked what he did and I went with it. I do think he tried and made an effort, but I didn’t have much to do with his performance.
FANGORIA: Considering having Kinski as an uncontrollable on-set presence, what was it like to work with the rest of the cast of CRAWLSPACE?
SCHMOELLER: Oh, everyone else was fine. Most of them came from my acting class in L.A. at the time. Talia Balsam was the exception, since we cast her from out of an audition, but a lot of the cast were just friends of mine. Surprisingly, they didn’t have a problem with Kinski. He was very flirtatious, and would flirt with a lot of the female cast. Sometimes, he’d arrive to set with Kenneth Shippy, who played Steiner and was the antagonist in the story, and I had heard that Kinski was famous for trying to sell his lines to other actors, which was kind of an absurd notion. But one day, Kenneth showed up and told me when he arrived to the studio, Kinski was trying to sell him his lines and he was confused as to how that would work because he was in the scene with him! Other than that, Kinski really didn’t give the other actors a hard time.
FANGORIA: How has it been watching the audience and critical re-evaluation grow for CRAWLSPACE over the years?
SCHMOELLER: I find it very rewarding when any movie I’ve done still has a life. A lot of my early films, particularly TOURIST TRAP and CRAWLSPACE, have found a new audience and still play. Truthfully, I don’t think CRAWLSPACE is really that good of a movie, except for Kinski who makes the film really worthwhile, although this was a movie made to use a set rather than intended to make a “good movie.” But I admit that it was a compelling, fierce performance from Kinski, which is why the movie plays at Kinski retrospectives and finds audiences outside of the usual “horror” audience.
CRAWLSPACE has played at art houses and Drafthouses, so it’s been seen by younger horror fans and older Kinski fans. In fact, recently I was given a Lifetime Acheivement award in Brazil, and I couldn’t understand, through all of the sold-out screenings, how so many 20-year-old kids had discovered my films. I never knew that CRAWLSPACE played on television outside of America
FANGORIA: Do you have any other projects you’re working on?
SCHMOELLER: I’ve got a new horror film I’m working on called DEAD ANGELS, and it’s based on an old children’s saying that when Angels die, they go to Hell. I’m a few drafts in, and it takes place in this limbo-space where deceased Angels intrude upon the world of living people as they pass onto the Afterlife.