Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson
Director of some cult classics, as well as having an eclectic career in the movie industry, we interview filmmaker William Sachs. During which we discuss armed police turning up during filming, fixing movies, and nearly walking naked for Yoko Ono.
For people who don't know, can you tell us a little bit about your previous films?
I started making films in the London Film School, which was called The London School of Film Technique at the time. I was there one year and made three short films. The first was Dear Mrs. Smith, a 3-minute film about an injured soldier. He is picked up on a stretcher, carried for a short distance and lowered into a pine box. The soldiers bring a lid. When the lid is lowered everything goes black: The entire film was one shot from the POV of the dead soldier. We shot it on the roof of the film school in Covent Garden. While we were shooting, people saw the men with rifles on the roof and called the police who came to the school heavily armed. My second film was a documentary about a girlfriend I had at the time and her life during “swinging London” of the sixties.
The third film, Breakfast, was about a US space capsule that lands on another planet. A giant pregnant woman picks it up, cracks it over a frying pan, and a double yolked egg falls out and cooks while “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. This film won a lot of prizes at film festivals.
After returning to the US, I went to San Francisco where I got a job as a janitor—my first paid film job, cleaning toilets at a film company! I was then promoted to production assistant, and then they started training me as an assistant editor (but I still had to clean the toilets). I also remade Dear Mrs. Smith as a 17-minute short on Infra-Red Ektachrome, which changes the colors depending on the time of day, amount of light, cloud cover, temperature, etc. I later used this film stock in Galaxina.
About that time, I heard that Breakfast was winning a lot of prizes around the world at film festivals, so I decided to return to London. Since I had no money, it took me a long time to get there. Actually, I only got as far as New York (after a strange trip through Mexico), but that’s another story.
In New York, I got off the subway and walked into the building next to the subway exit. The directory had a film company listed on two floors. I thought that would be a large company. It turned out it had one office on one floor, and an editing room on another. That was it. I went to the office and plunked a film can that had Breakfast in it on one of the two desks and said that this was a film I made and it was winning a lot of prizes in festivals, or something like that. I might have said, “I’m getting famous in England.” I’m not sure what I said, but it worked. I began working for Cannon Films as a production assistant and assistant editor.
On the first film I was working on, they fired the director and didn’t know what to do with the movie. I suggested a solution, so they promoted me from assistant editor to director on the same film. The film was saved, so Cannon began buying films for me to fix. One of these was their own production about the generation gap “cleverly” called The Gap. When it was first screened, a lot of people walked out as it was really boring. They fired the director and gave it to me to fix. When it was finished they asked me if I wanted to share director’s credit. The director was angry because he was fired, so he said he didn’t want a credit. I didn’t feel it was my film, so I just took Post Production Supervisor credit. When the director saw the new version, he decided to put his name on it. I had changed the title to Joe. It made a lot of money and made Peter Boyle, Susan Sarandon, and the fired director, John Avildsen, famous.
Even though Joe was making a lot of money, Cannon didn’t pay me the piddly bonus they promised me, so I quit. A distributor immediately hired me to go to Italy and buy twenty Italian films and change them so that people wouldn’t know they were Italian. He wanted to sell them to US TV, which was saturated with Italian movies and had stopped buying them. I had a great time re-editing, re-dubbing, creating new title sequences, bringing actors back to Italy (including James Coburn), and even adding camera noise occasionally so you couldn’t tell the film was dubbed. I wanted it to appear that the film wasn’t shot in Italy, but hopefully in America or some exotic location other than Italy. There was one Western that was shot in Spain. I put “The producers wish to thank the people of Sedona, Arizona for their cooperation in making this movie” on the end titles.
I loved working in Rome. Two great things came from it. I met my wife, and it led to me making my first feature film, There is no 13.
There is no 13 was shot on 35mm in New York with hardly any money and a lot of favors. When it was finished, we entered it in the Berlin Film Festival where it was nominated for the Golden Bear. During its screening, there were a lot of protests because it was an American film and the Vietnam War was going on. It didn’t win the Golden Bear. One of the judges confessed to me that the jury wanted it to win for many reasons, including that it was the best non-standard, or “art” film in the competition, but the festival organisers were afraid of a riot so they chose another film. The judge, who was a film critic, gave me a gift (an Escher Book, in which he wrote some nice comments) and the below review. It should give you some idea about the film.
There Is No 13
"Unforgettable masterpieces of film that are written in golden letters in the records are rare. There Is No 13, a debut by the young American, William Sachs, is one such masterpiece. Undoubtedly, Sachs, whose remarkable fantasy film gives indications of a new direction in film storytelling, is influenced in his structure by the synthesis of reality and imagination of Fellini, Resnais and Bunuel. Yet this style has been further developed… It is a deeply touching film, because this auteur's film, which is at first seen to be about a young man who is pushed by a film producer into fully distorted fantasies that follow one another in turbulent succession along with self-ridicule, is then surprisingly experienced as a striking and stirring anti-war film. The distantiation of Brecht is applied in an excellently masterful manner. We will be hearing again from William Sachs. He has it in his hands." (Piet Ruivenkamp, Haags-che Courant, at the Berlin Film Festival).
For some reason, after that film, a producer read my script of The Incredible Melting Man, which at the time was called Night of the Ghoul, and hired me to direct the film, again with hardly any money. We had, I think, fourteen shooting days. As with There is no 13, the original script was not a “normal” film. However, during shooting, the producers began to notice that it wasn’t becoming a standard horror movie. The wars began, which are documented in multiple interviews.
The films I have made since have been a mixture of genres. After working on one kind of movie I want to do something completely different. I also didn’t want to make a film that anybody can make and that would look pretty much the same. I have been offered TV directing jobs and turned them down for this reason.
I also decided that I didn’t want to work for anybody else anymore. I learned the hard way that if I can’t go with my gut and try to do what other people want, I can’t do a good job and the movie suffers.
I have done a lot of fixing jobs since Joe. I like doing that because it’s always a challenge, and because the producers are usually desperate they let me do what I want. Other than There is No. 13, there are two films I have made that I had that freedom, The Last Hour (Concrete War in some territories), which I enjoyed making, and Spooky House, which is a family film.
Even though I had final cut on Spooky House, I really didn’t. I wanted to cut one scene with some bullies. After a screening for kids I asked them if they thought I should cut the scene. A 7-year-old girl in a pink dress stood up and told me I had to leave it in or kids wouldn’t appreciate it when the good kids get the bullies. I left it in. After all, that’s who the film was for—the audience.
Spooky House went on to win all the top prizes at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.
Several of the films you have made, like The Incredible Melting Man and Galaxina, you wrote and directed. Does the filmmaking process differ largely for you, than when you only direct? Like on The Last Hour?
When I write a script I see and hear everything in my head, from the color of the walls to the dialogue. I’m essentially watching the finished movie in my head. My job as a writer/director is to get that movie from my brain to the screen through people. That’s why I like writing and directing. I have a problem with writing too much description and have had to learn to cut it down, so when I’m working on it I have to explain what I want to the crew and others verbally and through pictures.
I have only directed one film I didn’t write. That’s The Last Hour. What I liked about the script is that it was a blank canvas and I had a chance to do some visual experimentation. I needed to make some changes to make the film mine. Of course, the writer was a little bit pissed when he saw the finished film.
Who were your filmmaking heroes growing up? And who still inspires you now?
I love the surrealists, especially the ones mentioned in the review for There is No 13. I also enjoy Grindhouse films and movies that are like visual comics. I like old black and white WW2 era American and British films, Capra and Capra-style films. I like Japanese directors like Kaneto Shindô, whose Onibaba took place in a swampland or somewhere where there were tall reeds in just about every shot. You really felt as though you were in there with the characters. And Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, Terry Gilliam, Michelangelo Antonioni, Sidney Lumet, Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese.
I loved the shots in the Raging Bull fight scenes, but then I saw an old black and white boxing movie from the forties or fifties (I don’t remember the title) that had a lot of the same shots and techniques Scorsese later used in Raging Bull. I was taken aback. Raging Bull is still an excellent movie but not as original as I had thought.
I also admired the avant-garde filmmakers from the 60’s and 70’s, especially Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas. I enjoyed Scott Bartlett's’ OffOn and Pas de deux, which is a 1968 short by Norman McLaren.
One of my favorite films of all time is La Jetée by Chris Marker, which was made from still photos. But you have to watch the original one with the French narration (with subtitles if you don’t understand French) because the narrator is almost hypnotic. I have seen it in English and the mood is lost by a flat narration, or actually, the lack of a mesmerizing narration. La Jetée was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys.
Sometimes I like some of a certain director’s movies, but not all of them. For example, Sam Raimi for the Evil Dead movies (mostly Evil Dead 2) and George Romero for Night of the Living Dead which was part of the inspiration for The Incredible Melting Man.
I like Alejandro Jodorowsky, and ironically had to do a little fixing, mostly editing, of one of his films (secretly) because it was required by the distributors and it was part of the contract. I hated to do it because it was his “art.” Actually, a lot of my fixing jobs have to remain secret. Producers don’t want people to know their film was ever in trouble.
I am trying to think of who inspires me now as a director and nobody jumps out at me. I like some films for the films themselves, but I can’t think of anyone whose film I’d rush out to see. I think the spirit I felt in the sixties and seventies is gone.
If I had to name some, I’d say David Lynch, Terrence Malick, David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, Jonathan Demme (who acted in The Incredible Melting Man, but that’s not why), both of the Scott brothers (Tony Scott’s death was a great tragedy), and Paul Greengrass.
If you had any advice for filmmakers in 2017, what would it be?
Make films. It’s easier now that you don’t have the cost of film and processing. Do whatever you need to do. When I was living in London and hadn’t started film school yet, somebody gave me a roll of 16mm film. I didn’t have a camera. I was living in the basement of a residence hotel just off Queensway. I had traded my 8mm movie camera for three months’ rent (which included meals) and my watch for more months. There were two adjoining rooms, which had been for storage, and the owner let me do what I wanted with them. So I had two rooms and painted one room completely black and one completely white―everything, even the furniture, which I found in the basement.
Anyway, I boiled the film and then unrolled it out across the entire hotel basement. Then I took a paint scraper and scraped off the emulsion. I went to a stationary store and bought some plastic arrows, circles, boxes, etc., which were for presentations, and stuck them on the film. Then I spray painted the film with different colored paint and moved it about so the paint would run. Then I removed the plastic things during different layers of paint, so the colors would change. I did a sort of animation thing so that the arrows would shoot at the dots and squares or something, and when it was finished I showed it to someone who showed it to the Pink Floyd.
The group arranged for me to meet them at the UFO club, which was in the basement of the Blarney Club on Tottenham Court Road. They first showed it there. You can probably see some of it online. While I was talking to them, Yoko Ono (pre John Lennon) came over and asked me if I wanted to be in her celebrity naked butt film, called No. 4. All I had to do was walk naked on a treadmill. I thanked her and declined.
The group used my film there and in some concerts. Somebody told me it was in one of their music videos. There was one copy, and I never saw it again. I guess it wore out after a while. Your back catalogue has a lot of science fiction in, a genre which often struggled to break into the mainstream. Do you think that has changed with the arrival of streaming platforms?
Streaming has changed the entire world of film, for both the good and bad. While it allows for more films to be shown, it loses the aura of sitting in a theater (or cinema in the UK), with a lot of other people sharing the experience. This is especially apparent with so called cult films. What would you pick as the most important aspects of storytelling?
Everything is important. You need to create a world and keep the audience in it. When I fix a film, I have a checklist in my head, and as I watch I sort of unconsciously check off good and bad things. When the film is finished my brain lets me know if there were more likes or dislikes. If there are more dislikes, which there usually are, I work to change the score around.
What are you up to at the moment?
After Spooky House, which I co-wrote with my wife, raised the funding for, produced, directed and distributed myself, I felt burned out and didn’t want to make movies for a while, so I have been doing some commercials, PSA’s (Public Service Announcements), and a lot of writing, as well as consulting on scripts.
Right now, I have a couple of projects in consideration, have optioned two properties. One is a great script my wife found by a Canadian writer. The other is the life story of Dean Gunnarson, one of the top ten escape artists in the world. I first met him when he was one of our magician technical advisors on Spooky House. I also have a long running project about the assassination of Martin Luther King called MLK. I have a production company interested in it, as well as a few of my other projects.
I am also writing a horror/thriller script, and am attempting to write a book, which is very different from writing scripts, so I have to get my head around approaching the writing in a different way. What would you say if you were a dolphin?
I once touched a dolphin and it felt nice, like the top of a Sara Lee pound cake. I don’t know how it felt to the Dolphin, so I’d say:
"BILL THE DOLPHIN. Pet me!"