Interview with Damon Packard in Silverlake, Los Angeles, CA  January 25, 2010 1:30 AM 

Grog Ziklore went on a recent trip to Los Angeles and met up with director Damon Packard for an interview at the Astro Diner in Silverlake.

 

GZ: these days its hip to mock the past, but you pay reverence to it in your films. How would you describe the 1960s, 70s and 80s?

 

DP: Those were the last days where there were some really interesting ideas to explore in cinema. It was the last era for a lot of things. The 80s were the beginning of the end. Where erasing all the previous loose creative ends and values and styles was the attitude of the 60 and 70s, the 80s were all about going back to the 50s. The 80s was a really fun decade, especially the early to mid-eighties. Then in the late 80s it crystallized, and is the period that were still in now: the Orwellian rules restrictions, corporate control, the attitude of the movies coming out then is like now: the Lionsgate horror films,  dumb comedies and market niche films. They were around in the late 80s, but are exaggerated a million times now, with cell phones and technology and internet. Things like that were just coming around at that time.

 

GZ: I recall it was around 1989 when things started to stagnate and it seems like everything has been on pause and unchanged since then.

 

DP: Yeah, definitely. Some people talk about how there was a spike in the early-90s with this surge of independent film like Tarantino and Rodriguez, and others, like the new independents with the Weinsteins, but I don't know if thats really such a great thing. I like Tarantino, but what did they really bring? They took what had already been done before and put a new sensibility or twist on what had already been established in the 60s and 70s. Things have remained the same since then, so the 70s and 80s were a really inspiring time, a great period. The last days, the last golden era, like the 30s and 40s.

 

GZ: I think the quality of editing in films has been poor in the last decade. Every film seems to have a million cuts in it, creating a mess of unidentifiable random imagery, disregarding audience and story. Is it because of the easy access to non-linear editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro as opposed to the past where it was done on a flatbed and more difficult to cut and get access to facilities? 

 

DP: In many ways editing has gotten worse. Most noticeably, its the formula behind editing. Not necessarily in features, but in trailers and marketing. Trailer editing is what annoys me the most. It becomes so blatant. I don't know when this trend started, but every cut is a fade in-fade out. Look at every trailer now and they're all like that. Its not the use of computer editing, its the formula behind trailer editing which is so strict now, and has been, every trailer has to be cut the same way. The same techniques, fades, dissolves, fade in-fade out, you just get these little bits of information. Its this dumb sort of way of advertising, its moronic, the whole package, its put together so idiotic, I don't know how or why this began or what the reason is for it, because trailers used to be a lot different, they were creative and each one had a little bit of style to it, but then the marketing niche formula started. They're all the same, they're all advertising to the same idiot mentality. Its almost impossible to tell what a film is going to be like from trailers now.  They all look the same and they could look good or bad depending on what your interpretation of what that is. I guess they figure that makes it look great, so whether the film is good or bad it doesn't matter.

 

GZ: Its also annoying how these days they show you the whole movie in the trailer.

 

DP: Yeah, I know a lot of people who complain about that, that they probably show you too much. However if you go back, trailers were a lot longer than they are now a lot of times. They've always been pretty lengthy, even trailers from the 60s and 70s show too much from the film. It depended on what they were, but they were still much better edited and individualistic and of course they had much more interesting narrators. They had a lot of good narrators working. Now they're not using narration as much, but the people working in that field now are just awful, they're doing horrible imitations of Don Lafontaine, who was great, he had a genuine quality to his voice. He made it sound exciting. And you also had actors doing voiceover, like Percy Rodriguez, very distinct and interesting. he was a black actor who had a lot of character roles in the 60s and 70s. He was in a Star Trek episode, the one about where they're trying to automate the enterprise with the computer M5, and hes the scientist that comes on. He did narration for a lot of Spielberg trailers: Jaws, Close Encounters. He made them sound very exciting, he had an intelligent quality. Thats all gone now.

 

GZ: Most movie buffs go out of their way to establish cred by referencing obscure films and directors, but you reference more mainstream directors like Spielberg and Lucas. Do you like obscure films too?

 

DP: Yes, I'm a fan of obscure stuff. Spielberg in the 70s and early 80s was the big inspiration but so was Coppola, Scorsese, and Bob Fosse. At that time, I didn't know too much about foreign directors, I was only exposed to mainstream, but back then the mainstream was pretty good! I hadn't discovered Tarkovsky then!

 

GZ: Youve said you have an aversion to sleazy sex and violence, why?

 

DP: I guess theres a certain camp that loves that type of thing: the sleazy gratuitous grindhouse films and contemporary. Ive never been interested in that. So I guess thats a simple answer, Im not particularly a big horror buff, theres nothing that interesting about the horror genre. My approach to doing a horror film would probably be something thats already been done, like Freidkin's approach to The Exorcist. Or Robert Wises The Haunting, something thats well grounded in reality and well written with good performances. Theres nothing particularly interesting about a supernatural creature or monster, they're fun films, but I can think of very few films that I thought were genuinely spooky or scary. Gore and sleazy camp value simply for the effect of shock value, thats not interesting to me, I'm more interested in making the films like Cassavetes or Altman, Donald Cammell, or Lars Von Trier, stuff like that.

 

GZ: Did you see Antichrist?

 

DP: I wasn't crazy about antichrist. But the last few Von Trier films were good...I liked Dogville. I really love the first 3 or 4 of his, Element of Crime, Medea is amazing, they're all really Tarkovsky inspired but still really great, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark. Dancer in the Dark is a film I really wish I could have made. I would have made it a little differently too. I love Bjork in it, she was amazing, and I like those themes. Hes really fascinated by stories about fragile female characters. I think its the style and the musical numbers in it, the way he set up 20 cameras and shot a scene, I think it was an interesting experiment. I would've done it differently, choreographed the dance numbers differently, shot it on film if I could. Even though, he did a really good job of giving it a look. It didn't look like digital, especially for being shot on early digital.

 

GZ: Which recent film would you have like to have directed or remade?

 

DP: The 4th Indiana Jones film. I would've made sure there was a different script. Harrison ford looked great in it. If Spielberg had given me free reign! To go out on real locations. He promised he was going to do that, and he didn't! He said he was going to do it the old fashioned way, and it was all studio green screens and CGI, and CGI ants, it was ridiculous. And the whole thing turned into a cartoon, a Looney Tunes cartoon like all these films do, thats not what makes them interesting at all. They go off a cliff and suddenly Shia Labeouf is swinging on vines. I guess there was some of that in Temple of Doom, but Temple of Doom was still good because they were doing it in the analog age, and they had to do everything for real, what they couldn't do with matte paintings and miniatures and it was just so much better.

 

GZ: What was special about the 70s TV movies? Was it because there were talented directors then like Curtis Harrington and Paul Wendkos to name a few?

 

DP: Directors had more creative control in TV at that time and weren't following a market niche or style or template. They were good movies, there were great stories, good writers, it was a different generation; you had a different generation of better writers and directors that came out of an earlier period of time. So you had more intelligent movies being made.

 

GZ: What do you miss the most about the late 70s and early 80s?

 

DP:  Well, the late 70s early 80s was its own time, as opposed to the late 60s-early 70s. The late 70s early 80s was in a way where the quality of TV movies, series, movies, compared to the late 60s early 70s started dropping. The late 70s was the beginning of the blockbuster bubble gum era and TV shows like Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, which I still think are fun. That was its own time, the fantasy sci-fi boom special effects period. The genre of sci-fi and fantasy and horror, they were at their peak, there was a new resurgence of popularity for those films then. And there were a lot of technological breakthroughs going on then with sound and visual effects in the analog world. Special makeup effects too, everything was happening at that time in the late 70s and early 80s so that was another renaissance period, but it was different from the renaissance of the late 60s early 70s tomid-70s. The quality that existed from then, where you had these veteran writers, veteran directors, really good stories, character based films, not dependent in any way on visual effects, they were all suspense or story or character based emotionally driven, and then you had this special effects explosion in the late 70s that was different so some people will point to that period as the downfall. Another good one to get a barometer of what people thought of that time, is this documentary called Room 666 by Wim Wenders, shot at some film festival in '82. Everyone was there, like Godard, Fassbinder, Antonioni, they're all interviewed and they would sit in a room and talk about the future of cinema, and to them that was the end of cinema. The early 80s the way things were going at that time, with blockbusters and special effects that was it. To think if they knew what it would be like now! Things were still great as far as I was concerned at that time. Spielberg was interviewed too, he was there, and he was the only one who had a different point of view of that period. He actually thought it was a pretty good time! And I agreed with him, so thats kind of a misunderstood time, from a certain point of view. I think it was another renaissance period in a lot of ways. Even though the quality of standards had changed from 2 decades of quality writing, where good stories and good films were not dependent on effects, it was still a pioneering time in its own way for effects, and a lot of things. And it was still an exciting time and I think that continued through the mid 80s. The early to the mid 80s was the last period, at that time I was working for Mann theaters, doing a lot of theater work in Westwood. You could make a movie about this like American Graffiti, but set in the theater world. It was so exciting what was going on. They were like the last days, you had big single house theaters, opening these huge blockbuster movies in 70mm prints, lines around the block, people waiting overnight for movies, thats all gone now, it died by the 90s. That was the last period in history where cinema still had that excitement going on.

 

GZ: What is your favorite lost movie theater in LA?

 

DP: The Mann National in Westwood, which they tore down a few years ago. It'd been dying for a few years, Im surprised it lasted as long as it did. I worked there in 1984. Westwood was an exciting place for movies then and its all dead now, there going to close it down. Theres only 2 theaters left: The Village and The Bruin, and their leases are running out this year. Theres no way they can stay open, no one is going to them, single house theaters are gone. The Chinese Theater will stick around because its a landmark and its protected because its the mecca for tourists and the Cinerama dome because its encompassed by the Arclight Megaplex, but its not what it used to be. The Cinerama dome actually isn't that great a place to see a film, it warps the image and if you have subtitles on the bottom, they're cut off, its better to see them in another one. Even so, with the Arclight its still a pretty good place. The dome was really good when they played 70mm films like Ben-Hur and its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. But the Mann national is my favorite. I started working there right after Temple of Doom which I saw there a dozen times.

 

GZ: Did they show Runaway?

 

DP: Oh yeah, the Tom Selleck film! I remember when that opened, it played at another theater, The Bruin or Plaza. I remember when it was out, it didn't do very well, kind of came and went. Nobody saw it. Its really not that good a film, I like other Michael Crichton films better, Looker is great. Westworld, Great Train Robbery.

 

GZ: Did you see Looker in the theater?

 

DP: No, I never saw Looker in the theater. That was one of those films that would run on cable 5 times a day. I probably saw it a hundred times in pieces. I like that film. One thing about Runaway is that Jerry Goldsmith is my favorite composer, and I have all of his soundtracks, like all 400 of them, and I don't like his score for Runaway! It may be the only one I don't like! He did some electronic scores in the 80s that I don't mind. And he was working with electronics way back, since the beginning before anyone else was doing it, but I wasn't crazy about the Runaway score, it was the sound of that particular synthesizer he was using that I just hated. It was a really annoying sound, terrible. I think Hoosiers had a similar sound, which used the same sound years later. Thats another score that I hate. Some people love that score, its a lot of pop keyboard score. I just don't like it.

 

GZ: Do you like the score for Cujo?

 

DP: Yeah, I like that score, Charles Bernstein right? I have that. Thats interesting, I just did a little thing for the Cujo trailer, and I always wondered what the music in the Cujo trailer is. Its not in the movie. Its something else. I don't know where they got it from.

 

GZ: Is the quality of movies today poor because of the vertical integration of management in film companies in the last 20 years?

 

DP: Theres a lot of reasons. Its the whole changing of sensibilities more than anything. Its not just that people don't have the creative freedom they once did, its what creative freedom is now considered to be. If you look at the 60s and 70s, directors were still fighting to get their vision. Its the same as now, dealing with controlling producers, but it was a different sensibility of what was good and bad, perceptions of reality.

 

GZ: Reflections of Evil had a budget, but your other films have not. Did you ever try to get funding by sending scripts out to agents or production companies?

 

DP: Yeah, I did that somewhat, I never was much of a writer, I never had a stack of completed scripts or even one or two solid scripts, I had some treatments, I would send a lot of things around to agents and production companies, but nothing has ever come of any of that. I did that starting from the late 80s to early 90s, sent out a lot of copies of whatever new film I had made, or outlines I had made. I would send those out to literary agents, trying to get something, did that for a while, sent as many as I could, sent a query letter and a copy of a film I had made, it never really got any results. Nothing ever came of that. It was around the year 2000, 10 years ago! I got an inheritance and I made Reflections from that.

 

GZ: How long was Reflections of Evil written before you made it?

 

DP: Not very long, it was a combination of a few different ideas I was developing in the late 90s. Even though I started shooting I had more of a treatment than a detailed script and so much of it was left open for improvisation. So it was in the late 90s I had those 2 ideas, the guy going around trying to sell watches and the 70s flashback scenes with young Spielberg, they were 2 separate movies with 2 separate titles and I decided to combine them and I remember I had a detailed treatment, but I was really just using it as a reference and the actors would show up and wonder what they were supposed to do. But you know, who needs scripts?

 

GZ: Do you believe in chemtrails?

 

DP: Chemtrails? Well, chemtrails are there, they've been around for a while, they've been spraying for years now.

 

GZ: Are your portrayals of chemtrails and other examples of fringe science satire?

 

DP: I guess its not really satire, what you would call fringe science, or poking fun. I think they're all interesting, I would be more inclined to believe that than what you might consider the mainstream presentation we get of reality through the mainstream media. The conspiracy aspect of reality. The word conspiracy has been deluded, as soon as that word is changed, as soon as the language changes, it will change the whole interpretation of what the elements of conspiracy are. Its more reality and fact than it is conspiracy theory. The word conspiracy has such a negative connotation. I wish I had another way of describing it.  Another word is fringe science or alternative media. Its hard to generalize about that stuff, to just point at different theories and say I believe or I don't believe, its more that I'm more inclined to believe that than the mainstream presentation of reality how we see it where everyone is so dismissive of alternative realities. All that conspiracy based stuff has more fact based reality than what we think.

 

GZ: Was Reflections of Evil intended to be funny, with all of the dubbed voices?

 

DP: Well yeah, that all came about during the mixing of the movie and looping of sound effects. I had to shoot the whole thing MOS, so there was a lot of sound work to do. Except the Canter's scene. That had production audio, which I try to use if I can, when you're shooting in a controlled environment. There was too much shooting on the fly location work in that to have location sound. We were getting kicked off so many locations anyway, if I had brought a sound person. Plus I had intended from the beginning, even though I prefer not to shoot MOS, I like to have real production audio, its so difficult, but I think on that one I had intended to dub most of it. The voices and performances from all these incidental characters I think it would have been so difficult to capture that live, and I thought it would be funnier and get more energy out of it by looping it all, like with those guys screaming in the background.

 

GZ: Where did you find those street attackers in the film, were they just there on the street?

 

DP: Its a variety, some of them were just recruited on the spot, gave them some money. Some were from responding to casting ads, and I arranged for them to come down, it was a combination of real people and actors.

 

GZ: Name some rare 1970s TV movies that you like.

 

DP: Cold Nights Death is good. Home for the Holidays, thats the seminal Friday the 13th movie, but from 1971. I like that one a lot, its like Friday the 13th and Black Christmas, but predated them. It was one of those veteran TV directors, John Llewellyn Moxey and it had a great castSally Field, Jessica Walter. Another good one is All The Kind Strangers, with Stacy Keach. Hes lured into a remote house by kids who turn out to be keeping this woman prisoner there who was also lured into this house. Its like they want to adopt a parent, they're all kids but their parents were killed. Now they need parental guidance, so they abduct these people off the highway and lure them into their house by asking for help, by sending this cute little boy out to ask for help and they wait for the right person to stop and abduct them and then force them into being their mother and father. Thats one of my favorites, its great. There were a number of them that were popular but I didn't think were that good, Something Evil, but there were others like those that were much better, like the psychological haunted house story, usually with some sort of satanic connection or evil settlers. A lot of great TV movies, a lot of really great directors working in that field. Moxey, Wendkos, theres like 2 dozen of them you could name,  Bernard and Vincent McEveety, Bernard Kowalski, he did a bunch of Rockford Files, guys like that.  My friend Jeff Burr (Stepfather 2, Leatherface, Pumpkinhead 2) also loves TV movies and I've been helping him with a pet project, in Georgia for a while. He got fed up with the work situation in LA and went to Georgia to help his family and has been gone for almost 2 years. He was supposed to do a Halloween and Hellraiser film, he almost broke the record for number of sequels. He also made some independent films like Straight into Darkness, The Offspring. His first film had Vincent Price in it. But hes been doing this documentary on TV directors who were working from the 50s-70s, some in the 80s, and hes got like a dozen people lined up to interview, we've interviewed about 6-7 people, I'm dreading the day that I have to actually edit this, because theres so much material and its just such a massive project. We interviewed William A. Graham, he did Birds of Prey with David Jansen. He did 2 helicopter movies and some features. We interviewed Reza Badiyi, who did one of my favorites, The Eyes of Charles Sand. Its not very good, but the atmosphere about it, theres something perfectlyit inspired me to do the early 70s horror trailer. Those elements of really eerie, dreamlike strange quality. Badiyi started as a titles guy and then mainly worked with Hawaii-Five O. Hes a very mellow by the book, easy to work with kind of guy. We also interviewed the director of Pray for the Wildcats, and we interviewed Jeannot Szwarc, the director of Jaws 2 and Supergirl. Szwarc did a bunch of Night Gallery episodes. We only had about 2 hours with him, met him at Gower Street Studios where he was shooting an episode of Bones or one of those new shows. Really cool guy, we talked a lot about Night Gallery and Supergirl, Jaws 2 and Santa Claus: The Movie. He was really excited when I gave him some of my dvds!

 

GZ: What are you working on now?

 

DP:  I have been developing a sequel to my Elfquest inspired film Apple with somebody else over the last few months, I don't know if it will get made, but its got several of the characters from the first film in it. This would be the narrative feature length spin-off version of Apple. Its called Foxfur and it incorporates the Billy Meier story, of Pleiadian contacts with UFO's and the female extraterrestrial Semjase. It incorporates a lot of that stuff and other new age stuff. Sort of a new age fantasy. And its set in the final months of 2012. The Billy Meier story is one of the most famous controversial UFO cases in history. It was huge, starting in the late 70s when all those photographs started emerging, which was the best photographic evidence that ever existed. There was Super8 footage as well. A lot of the pictures looked phony but then some of them looked great, some of the best model photography ever done, some of the best designed models and forced perspective miniature work, for a one armed Swiss man and whoever his partners were. If it was fake, thats pretty good! Without a background in film and SFX, they did a pretty good job. That alone in itself is a pretty interesting story. How did they fake a lot of that stuff and why? The Pleiadians look like us like humans, they're supposed to be our cousins. Hes been seeing them since the 50s and has written stacks of books of contact notes, its ridiculous, all these other ET groups that were involved, and its very curious as to how they did it. It was shown on In Search Of.. which I still enjoy watching. There were some great episodes they did, really intriguing, like of Troll Castle, some really great aerial footage they got. They interviewed some of the people who were alive at the time. It was very effective with the music and layers. No show could ever duplicate that later, that feeling. The one thing on ghosts and hauntings, those are typically creepy to watch. I should give it an Indiana Jones type of title like The Billy Meier Chronicles: Semjase and the Beam Ship, or Semjase and Her Adventures on Earth. Nobody's ever done a film, not even an independent film, because they don't have the rights. In the 70s the studios approached him to make a film and he wouldn't do it. Im surprised nobody has just done it and changed the names or done an independent film and incorporated beam ships. Theres so much stuff about all these other ET groups and the names are great. Theres a bunch of stuff on youtube but theres also this long lecture given by this swiss group called FIGU and this head guy from there came out here for this lecture for MoveOn and talked about all this other stuff all these other ET groups that Billy Meier had contacted that I'd never heard of. I'd read the books that came out in the late 80s and theres so much to work with there as far as characters and they had such great names. Learians and Andromedans, other ET groups with other names, its really interesting, it would be an extensive movie based on all this information. So yeah, Packards is working on his next film: Semjase and her Adventures on Earth.

 

 

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