Interview: Richard Griffin (10/20/05)

[Ryan]: Was there a particular film that made you think “I want to make movies”?

[Richard Griffin]: Growing up in the 70’s, we didn’t have cable television back then, so you used to catch movies on the late, late show, and when I was growing up in Rhode Island it was channel 11. Late one night I caught a showing of Phantasm, the Don Coscarelli film, and I said “I want to make movies.” That, and probably Ralph Bakshi’s film Wizards, which my parents took me to see when I
was at the tender age of seven. Both those movies had a really profound effect on my as a filmmaker. I look at my films now, and the color schemes still remind me of Ralph Bakshi paintings! So, yeah, pretty heavily influenced by Ralph Bakshi and Don Coscarelli.

[Ryan]: Who would you say is your favorite director working today?

[RG]: That’s a tough one. I always think David Cronenberg. He’s not a director that I am influenced by stylistically, but I think in terms of the career of the horror greats of that period, he’s had the best career going because he’s made very, almost experimental films but he’s never seemed to have a problem finding the budgets or the casts. It seems like he can walk into a studio and say “I want ten million dollars to make a film about people who get turned on by car crashes.” Think about that, and think about the fact that he got James Spader, and Holly Hunter, and Elias Koteas, to play in these movies. It’s a pretty charmed career he’s got, where a lot of the other guys like Tobe Hooper and what are making movies that are going straight to video, or in the case of George Romero who’s so talented but can’t seem to get the financing for his projects. So, probably David Cronenberg.

[Ryan]: And a favorite director of all time?

[RG]: Orson Welles, definitely. In terms of style, probably Welles, very much so. Some of my favorite movies are his version of Macbeth, and obviously Citizen Kane, and The Lady from Shanghai. When I started learning how to edit, I actually watched a lot of Orson Welles to learn things. They always talk about his visual style, but the editing rhythms in his pictures always tend to be, well, almost impressionistic in a way. They’re really fantastic.

[Ryan]: What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

[RG]: It changes, depending on the project. I used to just love post-production. I actually really like shooting the picture a lot more now that I used to, and a lot of that was getting over my fear of working with actors. Midway through the career I’m in now I started acting on stage, and I learned a lot about actors, and working with actors, and just the process in it. I got over that fear and now I
feel like talking to actors while I’m directing is one of the most pleasurable parts of the process. It’s a great collaboration. I think shooting the picture can also be the most frustrating. It’s really interesting, my friend Scott Phillips’ production company is called “Exhilarated Despair,” and I think that’s the best way to describe the process. You’re never going to have a bigger rush than when you’re working on a film set. But it also brings out the greatest depression and anxiety and frustration, but you know… it’s “moving it through the machine” I call it. It’s herding cats, sometimes, and getting them from point A to point B. You’re never going to see people under such interesting circumstances as when you’re making a movie. You see the best in humanity and you see the worst in humanity, and I think nothing can beat it.

[Ryan]: What advice would you give to people trying to get their foot in the door?

[RG]: I would say: if you’re going to direct movies, watch a lot of movies! And don’t watch things just made in the past ten, twenty years. It’s like: if you’re going to be a writer, you have to read. You
have to watch movies, and you have to watch the masters. You have to watch people like Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Truffaut and Godard. You’
ve got to watch these movies because they created the language, because they were around before film schools. People like Hitchcock were starting out in silence, the silent era. Everything that Hitchcock did, we’re still doing now – they were just doing it with cameras the size of washing machines! But they invented a language, and a style, and a way of telling stories that I think is getting forgotten. I think everything with it’s MTV cuts and what not, we’re losing the main thrust behind what our job is, which is: we’re storytellers. And we’re supposed to be telling stories, and clearly, but now it seems like we’re trying to make things as funky and as hip as possible and we’re losing that main thrust of way our job is: just to tell a story.

[Ryan]: What was your most recent project?

[RG]: I just finished a movie called Seepage – not “Sea Bitch,” as everyone thinks I say with my Rhode Island accent. Seepage is a real kind of homage to the 70’s drive-in horror pictures. I describe Seepage often as “a horror picture with all the boring parts cut out.” It’s really meant to be fun. If you’re going in thinking you’re going to see some really dark, disturbing stuff – it’s not. It’s a very silly movie, it’s fun, it’s meant to be a movie that you sit around with a bunch of friends and drink beers and enjoy. I did two kind of very heavy horror pictures before that, Feeding the Masses and Raving Maniacs, and I said I wanted to do a movie that I’ll enjoy. That I can sit back and laugh at and have some fun. There’s some scary moments in it, I think, but it’s mostly just a fun, 90-minute haunted house ride. I think it’s a pleasure to watch the movie; I enjoy it. Out of the three horror pictures I’ve directed, it’s the one I enjoy watching the most.

[Ryan]: Has working in the low-budget world taught you any particularly important lessons?

[RG]: What happened was: I worked in television for fourteen years, and we all learned a very important lesson in television: how to make chicken soup out of chicken shit, as we used to say. Which was to get the most out of the very limited resources and money we had. So I’ve kind of brought that over into the movies; I think I get a lot of production value out on very little money. It taught me how to be very concise and specific about what I’m doing. I can’t add a lot of filigree to my production because I just don’t have to money. It taught me to be very lean and mean with them, and that‘s what I like. To me they’re like the modern equivalent of those RKO Republic pictures, which were very low-budget, like the great Val Lewton movies. I think a lot of time when you’re working under those circumstances, you have to fall back on your creativity. You don’t have money to say “fix it in post.” Or “we have to blow up a school,” well how are we going to blow up a school ? We’ll rent an old school that’s closed down and we’ll blow it up! You know, you actually have to think “maybe we’ll make a model,” or something. You really do fall back on your creativity and I think that’s where you see a lot of really good stuff on the independent scene.

[Ryan]: What filmmaking “jobs” do you do?

[RG]: Pretty much, the director. People often, especially in the low-budget world, refer to them selves as a “filmmaker.” I’m not really a filmmaker, I’m a director first. I also edit. I dabble in writing; I usually leave the bulk of writing up to real screenwriters. I’m pretty good at coming up with stories and characters, but I leave the writing to people who really know what they’re doing. On occasion I am the director of photography on other people’s movies. That’s very pleasurable and it’s a very good way to learn the filmmaking process from a completely different angle. When you’re the director of photography of the movie, you get all the pleasure of being a director without any of the responsibilities of the production. Your job is just to make it look good and to make sure you’re following the director’s vision. You don’t have to worries that a director has. You get a lot of creativity without having to deal with “is the actor going to show up” or “do we have enough money to finish this movie?” It’s just great.

[Ryan]: Out of the jobs you do, which do you enjoy the most?

[RG]: Directing. Obviously. It’s something everyone wants to do – everyone wants to be a director. I enjoy directing the most because there’s this great thrill when you’re directing a movie. You look on the set, usually on the first or second day, and you realize everyone’s there because of you. At first it’s kind of terrifying, because you realize that they’ve called your bluff and they’re here to make your movie, but at the same time it’s enthralling to know that you have somehow brought together a group of very creative people who believe in your vision and want to execute it in the best way possible. It’s an amazing thrill being a director.

[Ryan]: When you’re directing, do you usually edit your own films?

[RG]: I usually edit my own pictures, but I would really like to bring in another person to cut them. It sucks a lot of the enjoyment of the final product out when you’ve seen it two hundred times in the editing room. I would love to be able to hand over the raw footage and my notes to an editor and then have him come back with a rough cut. But I’m also a very insecure person; I like to cut it myself because I feel like I know the material better than anyone else. So it’s kind of a mixed bag.

[Ryan]: When you don’t edit your films, what is the best way to get your vision to the editor?

[RG]: The editors I have worked with, I do the same things I do with the actors, that I do with my composer, which is: I give a pretty vague idea of what I want and let them come up with the first run. An actor, I’ll let them do the first take without much direction, and then I’ll go in and modify. I don’t want to fill someone’s brain up with a lot of preconceived ideas, I want them to be creative and allow them to feel out the project in their own way, and then I’ll go in and make modifications. Usually I will give notes saying “these are the takes I want used” so that they’re not using takes that I think are just outright bad. It’s called your “selects.” I’ll hand over those and say “go to town!”

[Ryan]: How close to the scripts are your final products, usually?

[RG]: Depends. Feeding the Masses, I would say, was 75% the screenplay. We made some modifications to the ending to make it a little bit more personal. Raving Maniacs altered drastically from the script. The first half is pretty close to the script, but as it went on I wanted the film to be more psychedelic, more surreal. The script was very linear, very straight-forward, and very much an homage to Demons, this Lamberto Bava film from 1985, and I said “I want the film to be a little bit more hallucinatory, a little more trippy” so we made alterations. Seepage was a really weird case where it really sticks close to the script on a scene-by-scene basis, but the dialogue in a lot of scenes is really different. I was working with actors that were brilliant comedic actors and very funny in their own right – especially the actors that played the rednecks – so, a lot of times I would do two or three takes where they would read it scripted, and then we’d do another take and I’d say “just go to town,” and they would improv stuff. A lot of that improvisation, much to the surprise of the actors, made it into the cut. When you’re working with people who are just downright funny, you’d be a fool to say “no, you have to stick to what’s written on the page.” If they’re staying within the context of the scene, and they’re not throwing in stuff we’ll have to pay for later – like saying “this came from a giant UFO that crashed over in the back yard” and I have to come up with a UFO – I don’t mind. I’m not one of those directors that thinks their words are gold or anything like that. The audience is never going to read the screenplay, they’re just going to see the movie so they have no idea, and to me, I want to make the film as funny, as scary as possible, so it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In the end it’s going to say “a Richard Griffin film” anyway, so I can just take all the credit!

[Ryan]: Do you try to employ the same cast and crew repeatedly, or do you prefer to bring in new people on your projects?

[RG]: I like working with people I’ve worked with before, but I do like bringing in fresh blood, ‘cause it’s a challenge to me. Also, I don’t want my movies to look like the “Richard Griffin Ensemble of Players,” but I do like working with the same people over and over again, if they fit the part. I won’t cast someone in a partly just because I feel a duty to them to cast them again. I like working with the same crew over and over again, because we start speaking in shorthand. I’ve worked with the same director of photography now twice, Andrew Vellenoweth, who is a genius when it comes to lighting shots. When it comes to cast, I like working with a lot of the same people, but I also will try to bring in some new people. With the new picture we’re definitely bringing in a lot of new people.

[Ryan]: What would you say is the average budget of your films?

[RG]: It varies a lot. Feeding the Masses was $16,000, Raving Maniacs was $10,000, Seepage was $12,000, I think. I don’t keep track of numbers, so all of those numbers could be completely different. My producer deals with all of that, I don’t deal with budgets. He makes me a sandbox and I play in it. He says “this is how big your sandbox can be, it can’t be any bigger, this is how many toys you can have in your sandbox – you can play with them any way you want, but you can’t have more toys in the sandbox.”

[Ryan]: What would you say are the pros and cons of working in the low-budget world?

[RG]: Obviously the big pro is that there’s no one to tell you what to do and what not to do. I don’t have to screen my movies; they’re not dictated by a marketing department, saying “we’re not going to release this picture because we don’t know how to market it, it’s too esoteric, it doesn’t fit a certain demographic…” I can make the most screwed up stuff I want and I don’t have to deal with a studio breathing down my neck. The con is obviously the money. Anyone who tells you they’re happy working with a five to ten-thousand dollar budget is lying to you. Everyone wants more money, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Some people want a lot of money because they don’t want to have to be creative anymore, they just want to be able to turn the money hose on any problem and make it go away. I want larger budgets so I can pay people better salaries, so I can get locations that I really want, and have a certain comfort level on the set for everyone. We tend to keep a very comfortable set as it is, but we pay a big price for it. Not working in the system has a lot more advantages than working in the system. Basically it all boils down to dollars, but I’d rather have the complete creative control over a project, than a little bit more money.

[Ryan]: What’s filmmaking like in Providence (Rhode Island)?

[RG]: It’s really fantastic. Providence has yet to be hugely bitten by the film bug. There’s been a lot of Hollywood productions there in the last few years, mostly because of the Farrelly Brothers (Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly). Now Showtime’s doing a series there called “The Brotherhood.” It’s really a nice place to shoot in, because within ten minutes of every location there’s a different location. You can go from the city to a suburb, to the ocean, to the country, all within ten minutes of each other. That’s very seductive for a filmmaker, because you don’t have to drive a hour, two hours, to get to a different type of location. When we shot Feeding the Masses, we shot in a town called Pawtucket, RI. They were just very cool with letting us shut down streets, with giving us cops, with giving us fire trucks, all this great stuff. They just really wanted a movie shot in their town, and I think they’re very happy with the fact that this wasn’t just a movie that would be shown once at a festival and then be thrown away, it’s gotten nationwide distribution, so it was a good feather in the cap of the town. All of my filmmaking experiences in Providence, and Rhode Island in general, have been very positive.

[Ryan]: How would you compare the Providence filmmaking scene to Albuquerque?

[RG]: The difference between the Providence filmmaking scene and the Albuquerque filmmaking scene basically boils down to that there is a tighter group of people working here that all tend to gravitate around Scott Phillips and Billy Garberina. These two people have really brought together a tremendous group of people, and they’ve all made connections outside of that circle. So there’s this great collective of filmmakers here, and people who are willing not just to do the cool jobs on the set, but also craft services, boom operators, the “unglamorous” jobs that need to get done for a film to be made. I think that is really fantastic. We don’t have that support system in Providence. I think it’s a New England thing in general, people tend to be a little bit more individualistic and want
to go off and do their own stuff and not tend to get tied together in a group as tightly as the “Albuquerque Film Mafia” is. I’m very happy to have been adopted into the Albuquerque Film Mafia, I just wish I hadn’t had to bury that hooker out in the desert.

[Ryan]: What would you consider your first “real” film?

[RG]: I did a three hour adaptation of Titus Andronicus back in either 1989 or 1990. That was a real trial by fire. I had been making movies since 1987, but they were all short films or $200 features.
Titus Andronicus was the first movie where I had a budget, and producers, and crew, and art departments and costume departments, and all that stuff. That was my first real picture, but I haven’t really been pleased with anything I’ve done until Feeding the Masses. Feeding the Masses was very much a breakthrough in terms of making a picture that I felt looked like what I wanted. It did suffer a little bit from having a low budget, but at the same time the scenes and emotions that I wanted were there.

[Ryan]: What’s the earliest Richard Griffin film available to the public?

[RG]: Feeding the Masses. I’ve done a lot of movies; I probably have directed thirty short and feature length movies. You’re not going to see any of them except for Feeding the Masses, Raving Maniacs, and Seepage. They were like sketches – I refer to them as “sketch movies” because they were early attempts at filmmaking and I don’t really want people to see them. Actually, there’s one really early one I made in 1991 called Bernice which was a fusion of two Edgar Allen Poe stories. It’s only twenty minutes long, but it’s really good. I wish I could get the rights to that one. We used a
lot of music that had copyright problems. All my early movies, really you can’t see them because the music was not gotten by a legal fashion.

[Ryan]: Your film Raving Maniacs recently got distribution. Any idea when we can pick one up?

[RG]: I have no idea. Brain Damage / Maxim Media International is releasing the film world wide, which is pretty heavy. I have no idea when it will be released, but hopefully before too long. I would
say within six months, maybe.

[Ryan]: Any special features planned?

[RG]: Yeah, there’s a commentary track with myself and Patrick Cohen, the star of the picture, and there’s a still gallery, trailer, and a music video from DJ Venom who is really cool and was nice enough to let us use a lot of his music. He’s a world wide famous DJ and without him we wouldn’t have had a movie, because we needed some really great techno stuff and he really delivered.

[Ryan]: What’s the “securing distribution process” like?

[RG]: I’ve had it easy. I’ve got to say one thing: for some unknown reason when we finished Feeding the Masses I started getting e-mails from distributors saying “we’d really like to look at your picture.” I got some e-mails from Scott Phillips, who was looking for distribution at the same time, so we shared distributors e-mails back and forth. E.I. Cinema approached me, and we went through a very short negotiation process. There’s a thing I’ll always tell all independent filmmakers: when you’re seeking distribution be honest with the distributor. If they say “we want to offer you X amount of money” and you don’t think that’s right, tell them how much you want. Don’t haggle, just say “this is how much I think this movie is worth.” Or, if you’re in a percentage deal and something looks kind of sketchy in the contract, just say it. E.I. Cinema was very honest with us, and very honest with their payments towards us and all together every experience along the way with them has been positive. But I’ve heard of a lot of filmmakers getting fucked over by distributors, so you have to be careful because it’s your movie. Even if you only spent $5,000 on it, if the distributor fucks you, you’re never going to see that money again. I always ask for a “handshake payment” which is $1,000 if I’m going to take a percentage deal. I want a check that says “we have the ability to write a check for $1,000.” I’ve been very lucky. I know a lot of people have made movies and can never find distribution for them, and they’ve been better than my stuff. Being in the right place at the right time: zombies were huge when Feeding the Masses came out I think everyone wanted a zombie picture. The nice thing about E.I. Cinema is that they really marketed it as not just being a zombie picture, they really kept their promise and marketed it as a satire also, which was very important to me.

[Ryan]: Anything else to add? Any advice for up and coming filmmakers?

[RG]: I would say that the best advice I can give to any director is to surround yourself with people that are more talented than you. The best advice I can give is surround yourself with creative people and listen to them, but also learn to say “no.” If someone suggests something that is not within the context of your movie, say “no.” You can do it, but also learn to say “yes,” which is harder sometimes when someone is right about something. When an actor or a crewperson makes a suggestion that is on the money, have the balls to say “you’re right” and put it in the movie. Like I said, in the end you’re the one that’s going to get credit for it anyways. Steal from the best, I always say. And surround yourself with people who honestly care about the film you’re making, and are not just there to make a dollar. A lot of actors just want another credit on their resume, a crewperson wants something for their reel; make sure that they actually are invested in the project that you’re making. You don’t want a lot of people on your set that are just there to pick up another notch on their film bed post. Here in Albuquerque, DP’ing other people’s movies, I’m amazed always by the level of enthusiasm and dedication, and these people have a passion for the project that they’re working on, and I think that’s the best.

Richard’s Website:


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