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Interview with Russ Meyer

By Steve Fugett, Pat Holmes and D.K. Holm

Copyright © 1979 by Cinemonkey (Charles H. Johnson and D.K. Holm). All Rights Reserved. Reproduced by permission.

Online version
Copyright © 2001-2014 by Carl Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in Cinemonkey 17, Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 1979, pages 57-59.

Note about this reproduction: Punctuation, spelling and typographical errors have been corrected. Breaks in words and paragraphs indicate the original publication’s page breaks for reference purposes.

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The interview took place on 25 April 1979 at the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon. The interviewers were Steve Fugett, Pat Holmes and D.K. Holm.

PH: I was wondering if working on the industrial films and the newsreels helped you in your style, since the whole purpose of that style is to make a point as briefly as possible.

MEYER: In newsreel you had no control over the end result; military newsreels became commercial newsreels because there weren’t enough news cameramen. There were all these amateur photographers whose work was automatically good if there was that extra element of courage — but you had no control over the editing. I think it was the best experience of my life.

PH: Some of your experience seems to have carried over, in that some of your shots look like hazardous duty.

MEYER: Yeah, I like things to be a little hard. I like a location where you

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have to climb every day, manhandle the equipment. That’s what happened with Supervixens. We had to climb up that mountain every day. That mountain would bite at you. You had these terrible volcanic rocks, and you ended up cut and bruised, but it worked, you know, all the chemistry worked. I like anything that’s difficult, that’s physical.

But you make a good point about the industrial films. For example, to show how to drill an oil well, a lot of cuts are necessary. There’s a guy up there who has the toughest job in the world. He’s called the belly-buster, and they’ve not found a machine to do this job. But to show him you have to use a lot of inserts: up there with him, his face, the hands and the pipe, guys down below with their tremendous wrenches, the engine and the gauges and the brake; you have to have all these inserts to make it dramatically interesting. We had a good instructor in the army, who used to do Our Gang comedies the the Hal Roach studio, Arthur Lloyd. He would always hold up five fingers to us and say, “If you get long shot, medium shot, close shot, insert, and re-establish action, you’ll always be able to cut that scene.” We’d go out and always do that. We burned up so much film! A tank coming down the road — we’d always go up and say, “Could you back up the tank?” But I had a great time, got a lot of good scenes; a couple of them were used in the film Patton. Today, while shooting a film, I’m still using the five fingers. “Could you fall down again, my dear?”

PH: Do you end up shooting more film than you use?

MEYER: Oh yeah, it’s about fifteen-to-one. The biggest item on my budget is item 11 on the general form: laboratory. That includes all raw stock, processing, and dailies. In low-budget films, certainly in my films, that represents, say 80,000 of a $200,000 budget. So you see, there’s not much left for anything else.

DH: What did you think of Hardcore?

MEYER: I disliked it. It’s why I feel so uptight about the rating board now — I Was at one time a champion of the whole thing. Hollywood, the majors, the people who work in major films, who work in television, are so contemptuous of, particularly the independents, but especially those who work in hardcore films, and here they go right out and take the very thing they hold in such great contempt, and try to make a lot of money with it, and stand there in a pontifical way and say, “Isn’t this evil?” That ending was ludicrous as hell. I just didn’t like what they did, that’s all.

DH: Do you have many friends in the Hollywood set?

MEYER: No. I did when I was at Fox. It was a nice experience. I went there — I was asked to go, and given complete control . . . um, a little harassment from production because they felt the script would make a three-hour movie. Ebert and I did tremendous gobs of scene description. They were always timing it and saying, “This film is two hours and thirty minutes!” I have a great collection of memos from Zanuck. He was always writing memos: “Good show. I saw your car in the parking lot on Sunday and it gave me a good feeling.”

DH: How are your films given to the exhibitors?

MEYER: I have sub-distributors who sell it, you know, like the majors, on the basis of whatever we can get.

DH: You supply your own ad campaign, with different ads varying with what can be put in newspapers?

MEYER: Yeah, we put together a pretty good press kit.

SF: A lot more efficient than most of the majors.

PH: Have you ever made a film that lost money?

MEYER: No, never. Finally the last one, Blacksnake, Sweet Suzy, Duchess of Doom — whatever you want to name it, we gave it a lot of titles — got in over the winning mark. It sold to a lot of countries . . . Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon, countries where if you wanted to start a little revolt it might serve as a training film.

I have to do big tits and square jaws, or they’re not going to come to the film, that’s all. If the audience expects something and doesn’t see it, they aren’t going to come back.

PH: Do your films tend to each one make more money?

MEYER: No. There are four films in the 100 top-grossing films of all time, reported yearly in Variety (Cherry, Harry and Raquel, Vixen, Supervixens and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), all of them without having a name star. I think pound for pound and foot for foot they are among the most successful films made. But still, I find it behooves me to make films as reasonably as I can. The days of Vixen are gone. Everything’s been shown. The cost of prints, advertising, even production, has doubled. I think it kind of speaks the death knell for the independent. He’s faced with this right now. The majors are buying up product left and right.

DH: Are your films against women?

MEYER: I really think a film of this nature is really pro-female, in the sense that they very definitely put a woman in control; the men are all their willing tools, klutzes. Women are the ones after their own physical pleasure. It’s just because the women are so outrageously abundant. My thing about showing screwing is to show it in such a put-on way, that, for the distaff audience, it takes away a lot of the curse of showing it.

SF: Tell me about your experience with the Sex Pistols.

MEYER: I was under contract to make a film with them. Ebert and I did a script. We did eight versions. The thing was aborted after three days of production. It was a traumatic experience, in the sense that you start a film and work that arduously and it doesn’t come to any fulfillment. It was a parody on an aging Mick Jagger, and we had a Colonel Parker kind of manager.

SF: Was there any concert footage?

MEYER: We had a set-up thing at the end in which Johnny Rotten tries to emulate Mick Jagger and he gets shot by a 7-year-old with a magnum for his efforts. We shot for three days in Wales in supposedly the Queen’s game reserve, with David Prowse.

SF: When I first heard about it I thought it was the perfect union — Meyer and the Sex Pistols.

MEYER: It wasn’t all love and kisses. Rotten and Vicious were difficult guys. Jones was a bright, intelligent guy who knew the film would do a great deal for them. Rotten was always caught up in his own particular drama. But I had him, I think, in pretty good shape. The film finance board wanted to know who would be the Clyde Beatty here, who will be the lion tamer for the Pistols, because they had a notorious reputation, which was earned. And I felt certain we could handle it. We were going to shoot outside London in Bray Studios, and they would be in trailers and I would stay with them, under my control, nobody leave, no pubs, no beer, because, the kind of guys they were, they would go out and the Teds would break their bodies and all of a sudden you’d be out of it. That was the kind of planning you need, way on and above a regular picture. It would have been a nervous experience. And the other two had no control over them, and Vicious, I’m sure, was shooting all the time.

PH: Where did you find your actresses?

MEYER: One girl will recommend another. All of the girls are strippers. I’m more confortable in that area. First of all, I like strippers; you don’t have to reduce any resistance to taking their clothes off;

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they are, in a sense, actresses. I don’t go around looking. One girl says, “If you think I’ve got great tits . . .” You don’t have to go through any bullshit. They want to be in the film because they can play now in Terre Haute as “Star — Russ Meyer’s Supervixens.”

PH: How did the use of the Greek chorus come about?

MEYER: My strongest influence as a filmmaker was, after the war, doing industrial films for some ten years. And in industrial films there are always narrators, a guy who comes out on a mailbox saying, “I want to tell you about our annuity plan.” I like putting corny bullshit with the sex stuff. I like the whole industrial approach to making films.

DH: In the Roger Ebert article in Film Comment . . . .

MEYER: Somehow he got some wrong information about the film [Cherry, Harry, and Raquel] being destroyed in the lab. That’s not true, and he realizes it now. The leading lady left in the middle of the film. She couldn’t handle Panamint Springs; it had no phone and no cocktail lounge. And it was good, it was good for the film. You have to reach for other things, and that’s where Ushi Digard came in. And Cherry remains my most successful film in cable television, because you can come in on it at any time.