Friday, January 20, 2017

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With the Director of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, Lee Harry

Primarily an editor, Lee Harry has directed several movies over the course of his Hollywood career, often doing other jobs on those films as well. A multi-talented filmmaker, Lee's most famous work will always be the cult favorite SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987). In this interview, Lee discusses how he got interested in making movies; his career from the beginning up to today; the making of SNDN2 and working with Kung Fu film favorite Hwang Jang Lee among many other things.

CAC would like to thank him for taking the time to answer questions about his career.

Harryhausen with 7 VOYAGE OF SINBAD creatures
Venoms5: Tell me about yourself and how your interest in movies came about. Were you a fan of SciFi, horror and monster movies as a kid?

Lee Harry: Like most future "geeks" at my young age, I loved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Every few weekends my parents would drive us to Winchester, VA, where they grew up, to visit our grandparents. I would head directly to the local newsstand where I would find FM, Alfred Hitchcock Magazine and various comics that I couldn't find in my home town. Interestingly, I was very squeamish as a kid, and FM showed me behind-the-scenes pix of make-up and gore, so I was able to work through some of my bloody phobias. It's also where I learned about Ray Harryhausen who, like so many of my contemporaries, was a big influence. I made a lot of 8mm movies trying my hand at stop-motion.

V5: How did your stop-motion experimentation go and what did your parents think of your interest in the genre?
LH: I used my dad's Kodak Brownie 8mm camera at first, trying to flick the shutter a frame or two at a time, with clay dinosaurs. I got a few good grades in school by making films, so my parents were very supportive. The school bought a brand new Bolex Super 8 camera and I started filming the football games. And since the games were on Friday, I took the camera home for the weekend and made movies. Win win.

V5: Was there a film, or films, that influenced you to get into the movie industry?

LH: I remember the night I first saw Spielberg's DUEL (1971) on television. I was in high school. It was on the ABC Movie of the Week and I had a small B/W TV in my bedroom at home. Even on a 12" screen, I couldn't believe what Steven Spielberg did with just a car and truck for 90 minutes. I think something went "ding" in my head. I started to look at colleges with film programs.

V5: Do you recall anything about working on either FADE TO BLACK or WITHOUT WARNING (both 1980)? How did those jobs come about?

LH: I was a production assistant on both of those movies; on FADE TO BLACK I was Dennis Christopher's Winnebago driver and gopher, and on WITHOUT WARNING (called ALIEN WARNING when it was shooting) I drove Martin Landau to and from set in my Mercury Bobcat. I'm sure he expected a limo, but low budget is low budget. He was a very nice man; this was years before he won an Oscar for ED WOOD. I actually wrecked my car working on that show and they wouldn't reimburse me. I did meet a lot of good people who loved movies and just wanted to work on them.

V5: In the early 1980s, you were an editor on several low budget SciFi movies including the TV movie comedy THE PERFECT WOMAN (1981) starring Fred Willard and Cameron Mitchell as an alien; some of these had Steven Spielberg's sister, Anne, as producer. Could you comment on these early works?

LH: I was hired by Sandler Institutional Films, which was known for UFO "what-if" documentaries, several starring Rod Serling.  They had been contracted to make 10 made-for-cable sci-fi movies back when cable was just getting popular. I cut five of them. They were shot on 16mm for almost no money, but they gave me a Moviola flatbed editing machine to cut on, which was quite a luxury at the time. I also met people there who I still considers good friends. Anne Spielberg was a great lady and fun to work with.

V5: Editing on low budget movies, do you often have multiple angles to play around with or are there frequently very few set-ups to work from?

LH: If the production was lucky enough to afford two cameras, they usually rolled both whenever they could, but film was expensive unlike the endless capacity of digital now. I remember only having a couple takes of each angle on most projects. The best part of productions like that is that since they have no money, you have to do everything. I cut picture, sound effects, dialogue and music. I got to work with the visual effects guys and go to mixes. Pretty cool learning experience for a novice.
V5: You're listed as doing 'additional editing' on HELLHOLE (1985). Was there problems on that film? It has quite a cast.

LH: Hoo boy. At the time I was co-owner of a struggling post production company. An editor friend had been offered the HELLHOLE job, but considered it beneath him. I met with the post supervisor, Lawrence Appelbaum, and he offered me more money than I had seen in years. I closed the company and took the job. A week later I got my ex-co-owner buddy on the picture. It "starred" the late Ray Sharkey, who appeared to be in his heroin phase, Marjoe Gortner, Edy Williams, the Russ Meyer bombshell, and the great Robert Zdar. I was hired to cut the reshoots which were basically sex and violence scenes. It didn't offend my sensibilities because I had a baby on the way and needed the money.
V5: You're billed as supervising editor on THUNDER RUN (1986). I noticed you kept the action sequences tightly cut. The train jump by the weapons-laden big rig was especially impressive. What was it like working on a Cannon production?

LH: It was only a Cannon production after they bought the finished film.  During production it was a Cliff Wenger movie directed by Rod Amateau with the post being done at Mr. Appelbaum's company. I was only made editor after the original editor was fired.  I ended up re-cutting the whole thing, but again, the fun part was doing everything with my buddies. Can you imagine; they sold that movie on the strength of that truck jump, which was a practical stunt! You could do it in After Effects now and have dinosaurs driving it. We had a bunch of great late nights cutting that movie.
V5: This brings us to SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 2 (1987). 

LH: I was working full time at Mr. Appelbaum's company along with my buddy Dennis Patterson and Joe Earle. We were editors; we cut anything that came in the door-trailers, commercials, industrials. SNDN2 was just going to be another job. The existing SNDN had bombed badly and a new group of producers bought the rights from Tristar and wanted to make some $$$, so they came to Larry and asked us to re-cut it, re-score it and call it a sequel. Joe, Dennis and I wrote a quick treatment and convinced everyone that we could do what they wanted AND add new material to truly make it a new movie.
V5: What was your opinion of the original at that time?

LH: I was still pretty squeamish and was, frankly, kind of appalled at the first movie. Santa Claus as a murderer? And it is pretty gnarly; cutting the young mom's throat? Yeesh. At least our victims deserved it. Except for maybe Garbage Day guy.

Lee Harry (left) in the movie theater sequence seated next to Randy Post
V5: Did you have any reservations about making the movie knowing roughly 30 minutes of the film was footage from Part 1?

LH: That was the assignment. And being an editor, all we do is try to make footage cut together. So it was a puzzle, a challenge and an opportunity.

V5: Do you recall the budget for this picture? 

LH: I've been quoted as saying it was $100,000, but I could be off. We did have a full crew and equipment. We had a periscope cam rig for the opening shot, I had a dolly on set at all times, we had Chris Biggs doing make-up and Spiro Razatos as stunt co-ordinator. Spiro was the guy standing in the street for the car gag.

V5: What can you say about Eric Freeman in the lead role as Ricky? He was great... over the top, but that's what makes his performance so memorable, in my opinion.

LH: I just listened to a podcast with Eric where he says I didn't give him a lot of actor-ly direction, and that sounds about right. For better or worse, I'm more about the shot. I've always wanted to make a silent version of SNDN2 to showcase the camerawork. It's not easy doing tracking shots when the producers are yelling to wrap it up, we're headed for overtime. Initially I was more a fan of David Heavener, a popular low-budget actor who was intense and more Charles Manson-y. Joe and I were big Stephen King fans and we saw Ricky as one of Mr. King's bigger than life villains from THE STAND. And it's funny, because in my opinion, no one has ever put that literary badass character-type on screen as King wrote and continues to write it. Not until Jeffery Dean Morgan's Negan on WALKING DEAD. Imagine Ricky like that 30 years ago.

V5: What happened with Mr. Heavener not doing the picture, and were you ultimately satisfied with Mr. Freeman's performance?

EF: Eric's performance is legendary. I think it’s been clearly stated (by Eric and others) that I was all about the shots and getting something that would cut together. I like to cast actors who fit the part, then let them go with it. For better or worse, I think most of my actors would tell you the only specific direction they ever got from me was, "Make sure to hit your mark so you’ll be in focus after the dolly stops." I’m sure that’s frustrating to many. I'd like to think I would get better with practice, like I have with editing for 30+ years, but my films are few and far between.

As for David Heavener, he came in and did a really intense, creepy audition. I liked him, but I think he spooked producer Larry Appelbaum, who chose Eric. It was all fine with me. I just wanted to make a movie.

V5: Was there an attempt to get Lilyan Chauvin to reprise her Mother Superior role? She was great in the first movie; one of that film's strongest assets.

LH: As I recall, Larry told us she wanted more money than we had. I can't blame her for trying. 

V5: Was the classic line "Garbage Day!" ad-libbed or was that in the original script?

LH: It was always in there. And we shot a dog in that first draft, too! Yikes. Joe and I thought it would be cool to put a total gun massacre into the middle of a horror movie, because that's an ultimate suburban horror, right?  Unfortunately, now it is.

V5: Aside from the schlockiness, there's some impressive shots in this movie. The stunt where the red car flips and narrowly misses the stuntman being one instance... was that a single take?

LH: Yes, that was the first take. We only had the one car and the sun was almost set; and we almost killed the stuntman getting that single take.

V5: SPX Makeup Artist Chris Biggs had worked on some high-profile genre work at this time. How did he come aboard? Both the umbrella and battery charger scene are impressive. 

LH: Chris had a break in his schedule and had heard about the movie and reached out to our production manager. The umbrella death is my favorite. It was much more graphic but I had to cut it (and all the violence) down because the MPAA wanted to give us an X rating.

V5: Do you recall the film's premiere? What was the reaction from patrons and critics at that time? Did you get a lot of slack for the abundance of stock footage?

LH: It wasn't much of a premiere; just me, my wife and a few friends at the Egyptian in Hollywood watching with the other paying customers. Beforehand, we had a drink at Musso & Frank and I met Curtis Hanson (director of THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, LA CONFIDENTIAL 8 MILE, etc) at the bar. He wished me good luck!

V5: Did you ever meet the original film's director, Charles E. Sellier, Jr.?

LH: No, never met him.

V5: Can you talk about STREET SOLDIERS (1991)? Was that film a pleasant experience for you?

LH: Yes and no. I certainly enjoyed making the movie; we trained our actors with the stunt coordinator, Kim Kahana, for a week before shooting so the fights would look realistic. I'm happy with the look of the film and the shots we got. There was a problem with the financing halfway through shooting, so we took time off while the producers regrouped. It was financed by Korean "businessmen" and the executive producer, Mr. Kim was pretty threatening. At one point I had to hold the film hostage in my garage until the crew got paid. That being said, once Curb/Esquire picked it up we got a primo stereo mix at Todd-AO--which isn't cheap--and a dozen visual effects from Fantasy II.

V5: How was it working with Jun Chong? 

LH: Jun was great. Very supportive and a nice guy. We had met when I was a re-recording mixer on SILENT ASSASSINS. Most of the "good gang" were his students, some with acting experience, some not. The 'JP's' were stunt guys who trained under Kim Kahana before the project existed. Jun's students were respectful and took direction well.

V5: Were you aware Hwang Jang Lee (billed as Jason Hwang) was a huge martial arts film star in Hong Kong and Korea in the 70s and 80s? Do you recall how he got hired on this picture and what was he like to work with?

LH: I was not a big follower of martial art films at the time, and since there was no internet I really had no way of knowing how big "Jason" ,as we called him, was. He was a friend of Jun's and the producers, so he ended up as Tok. The whole snake thing was a disaster.

V5: Can you explain the problems with the snake?

LH: In the original script that I adapted, Tok (Hwang Jang Lee) carried around a cobra snake, using it to spray his victims with venom. We hired a guy to make a functional snake puppet, but he got a "studio" job before our shoot and could only make a stiff rubber version.  It’s kind of laughable and I tried to talk Jun Chong out of using it, but it stayed in the movie.

V5: As for editing, do you find it more satisfying editing an action sequence or a horror scene? 

LH: I love editing period, it's what most of my career has been. Regardless of genre or type of project, I just find it fascinating the way you can cut things together to create an emotional reaction. And then when you don't have the footage you want or need, you have to figure out how to make it work.

V5: Which do you prefer--editing or directing, and would you want to direct a feature again?

LH: I think I'm a much better editor than director, if only because I've edited hundreds of pieces but only directed several films. I'd direct again in an instant, though.

Lee directing THE WHISTLER
V5: What are you doing today? You recently completed a short film titled THE WHISTLER.

LH: Right after I sold my interest in our trailer company, BUDDHA JONES, my father passed away and left my brother and I each a small amount of money. I used mine to finance THE WHISTLER, which was a story I wrote years ago that my Dad had liked. We were both Twilight Zone fans.

V5: Whether film-related or otherwise, what accomplishment are you most proud of and what do you have planned for the future?

LH: Other than my family, my proudest achievement was winning a Student Academy Award in 1978 for my short BUTTON, BUTTON.  The Academy flew us to LA from Connecticut. My parents joined us. The award for Best Dramatic Film was presented to me by Steven Spielberg and his new protege´ Robert Zemekis. It was quite a weekend. We returned to CT, packed our bags and drove out to California. As to the future; I'm making an animated short to showcase the musical I've been writing for years. I love learning new 3D software and animation apps. Gotta keep up with the technology.

I would like to once more extend thanks to Lee Harry for taking the time to do this interview. I wish him all the best in future endeavors and continued success.

You can read a review of THE WHISTLER and also find a link to watch it HERE.

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