THE GENTLE MANIAC: Buddy Giovinazzo Remembers Original “MANIAC” Joe Spinell
With all the excitement surrounding the stateside release of Franck Khalfoun’s MANIAC this week, we wanted to also take the opportunity to look back at the original. The first stop, for me, was to see these pages graced with a tribute to the soft-spoken screen giant Joe Spinell. COMBAT SHOCK director Buddy Giovinazzo, who was working on the MANIAC sequel MR. ROBBIE at the time of Spinell’s death, remembers the late, great character actor.
I had just shot COMBAT SHOCK and was in the process of editing the film when a friend of mine told me that Joe Spinell was looking for someone to direct what was supposed to be the sequel to MANIAC. Bill Lustig’s MANIAC is a seminal film in my life and had a big influence on my own films at the time. So my friend gave me the phone number of a bar in NYC and told me to ask for Joe. I’d never done a “cold call” before and was nervously expecting to be brushed off. But the next thing I know, Joe Spinell gets on the phone and tells me to meet him at this bar—Tonight! It’s nearly 11 PM and I’d need about an hour to get there, but that’s early to Joe, so I go up and meet him. After the initial “Holy shit! I’m hanging out with Joe Spinell” moment, he was like an old Italian uncle. He told me that he was surprised by the various women’s groups who’d picketed the film and attacked him for being a misogynist. Joe loved women and was a gentleman, and he wanted the character of the new Maniac to be sort of a working class hero (in a psychotic serial killer way). He pitched me the story of MR. ROBBIE, a crazed kiddie show host who brutally murders abusive parents. Well, before he could finish that sentence I was on board.
Joe was the first professional actor I’d ever worked with. The things I learned from him I use even today in my filmmaking. For instance, the first night on set, Joe sort of commandeered the crew: setting up shots and deciding where the camera should go. He completely steamrolled me. I thought, Well, he’s Joe Spinell, he can do what he wants. After an hour of this I thought, Great, I’m being squeezed out of my first professional experience on a film set. Finally I’d had enough and told him good luck, that I was leaving. Joe then took a step back and said, “If you’re the director then you should direct.” He had been testing me to see if I was someone who could bring a vision to the film, or was just happy to be on set. And that was maybe the most important lesson I ever learned. I think every good actor wants to have a director directing them, making suggestions, challenging them to make the best choices for their character. Joe wanted, and needed, an objective eye helping him shape his performance. And while I admired and respected Joe as much as any fan could, when it came to the work, he didn’t want a fan, he wanted a colleague.
It was a difficult shoot, starting at around 11 pm and finishing around 9 am when some of the crew had to go to their regular jobs. We were all tired and overworked, there not being enough crew to handle all the various jobs. We were basically film students who somehow stumbled onto a film with one of the iconic horror actors of his generation. Joe was a total professional the whole time. He loved working with young people, loved their energy and inexperience. He would sit on set with a grin, watching us trying to figure out how to make a film. And he gave his best efforts, 100%, on every take. For Joe there were no “throwaway shots.” Every take, every moment that the camera was running, he was bigger than life. He told me: “Film doesn’t lie.” It can see when you’re not fully there, when you’re not giving your best. So even when he was exhausted and beat, once I said “action,” he came alive as if shot with adrenalin. That was amazing to see!
I loved working with him. I loved his kindness and gentleness (funny to read, I know, but he was a gentleman always). We finished the film, a short promo reel called MR. ROBBIE, and then tried to raise the financing for the feature. But unfortunately it never happened, and then Joe passed on. Another thing about Joe, he always had time for his fans. No matter who came up to him, no matter where we were, he would always sign an autograph and pose for a photo, preferably holding a knife to the subject’s throat. I am lucky enough to still have my photo of Joe holding a butcher knife to my throat with that maniacal gleam in his eye. I miss that gleam, as do so many of his friends, and I’m so very grateful to have worked with him, and gotten to know him. He was an original who left behind a vast body of work with major directors, minor directors, and everyone in between. Including an inexperienced film student who was fortunate enough to have an uncle who could show him the way.
– Buddy Giovinazzo, May 31, 2013
See below for the full MR. ROBBIE PROMO, following introductory interviews: