John McNaughton Talks the Making of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER

Jacob chats with the director of the notorious horror movie.

Last week, we spoke with Michael Rooker about starring in the seminal horror picture, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This week, we had a chance to talk with John McNaughton – the movie’s director and co-writer – about the trials and tribulations surrounding the making of what is easily one of the most disturbing movies ever made. What followed was a rather easy-going chat that covered everything from McNaughton’s earliest interactions with the film’s producers, to just what it was like to lay eyes on Rooker for the first time…

BMD: I told Michael [Rooker] earlier, and now I’d love to tell you: Henry freaked me out so much as a kid that I actually stole the tape from the video store and hid it in my closet for a short period of time.

John McNaughton: Did you get caught?

BMD: Oh yeah. My parents hated me.

JM: The worst part of any crime is getting caught.

BMD: Before you made Henry you were making documentaries and industrial films in Chicago, right?

JM: Oh, I wouldn’t say “industrial films”. I was making some small odds and ends, personal passion project shorts and rock videos for friends. [Pauses for a second] Actually, now that you bring it up, I did make a few industrial movies. I worked with a guy named Paul Chen, who eventually became the Assistant Director on Henry, and he would scrounge up jobs – commercials and training films for a few companies. Then I did a couple of documentaries for the Ali Brothers, who would go on to fund Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. They were called Dealers of Death – pretty low budget affairs that were intended to capitalize on the VHS market.

BMD: Dealers of Death – that was a gangster documentary, wasn’t it?

JM: Yes it was.

BMD: How did the original concept for Henry come about? I knew you had met the Alis while you were making documentaries for them, but how were you approached to produce a narrative feature?

JM: I had actually worked for them previous to making the documentaries. Before there was such a thing as VHS and home video, the Ali Brothers had a business they were running out of their parents’ basement. Their business consisted of two “arms”, if you will. One involved the manufacturing of these tiny boxes – twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches. They were cubes that contained these projectors, which would play a one hour Super 8 loop of film, and they would project old cartoons and silent films that were in the public domain that could be shown without paying for the rights. They would lease these boxes to the local Pizza Hut restaurants in the area, and then hang these white projection screens up front and the one hour loop of cartoons or old Charlie Chaplin movies would just play over and over for people eating pizza. Once a week, they would change out the black boxes so that something different would play, and that was my job. I would drive around in this great big Monte Carlo and go from Pizza Hut to Pizza Hut all throughout Chicago and pick up one box from one restaurant and then install it in the next restaurant up the road.

I was doing that for them and then was put in charge of delivering audio/video equipment to different hotels and business conferences while working as a bartender at night so I could save up and buy my own equipment. I ended up quitting both of those jobs and took a carpenter’s job that paid better, but I kept in touch with the Ali Brothers, who moved on to buying the rights to B-grade horror movies once they got into the home video business. They were doing really well selling the films to local rental shops. But as the market grew, the price to acquire the rights went through the roof, so they just decided that the smart move would be to make their own movie instead. So they gave me $100,000 and the task of making it.

BMD: What were they looking for out of Henry? Because I have a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t what you made.

JM: [laughs] Your suspicion is correct. They were looking for pure exploitation – blood and tits, basically. Henry came as a quite a shock, because they were not expecting that…at all. I’ve often said that their worst nightmare was an “art film”. In fact, they could hardly get the term “art film” out of their mouths without retching.

BMD: Was Henry Lee Lucas someone you had been fascinated with?

JM: Nope. You know, life is very interesting. Had the Hand of God came down one day and magically bestowed upon me the ability to make any film I wanted, it probably would not have been a horror film. It probably would have been some sort of drama. So when I met with Waleed [Ali] and he gave me $100,000, I had no idea whatsoever what I was going to do or that this was even going to happen. I walked out of his office, stunned. That thing that you always wished happened – well it just happened. Somebody gave you money to make a film.

So I was walking down the hallway and ducked into the office of a friend. He was a guy who I’d known my whole life and we’d played in rock and roll bands together. We’d actually gone to grammar school together. He was a strange guy, and he had always been a collector of the weird and the arcane and the offbeat, and his job was to assemble all of this crazy shit he’d find into products they could sell.

BMD: What’s his name?

JM: His name is Gus Kavooras. And like I was saying, we were kids together. We went to crazy movies together and loved loud music; we had similar tastes in the “crazy”, if you will. I said “Gus, Waleed just gave me $100,000 to make a horror film.” Naturally, he asked me what it was going to be about and I told him I had no idea whatsoever. Now Gus was always a great smoker – he had a viceroy going in the ashtray. He took a puff and said “well here” and took a tape off of a stack of numerous cassettes and popped it into the player. On the tape was a news magazine called 20/20, which featured a segment on Henry Lee Lucas. It was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase “serial killer” which, about a year or so ago, I discovered had been invented by the FBI shortly before I made the movie. It was not in general circulation yet. But there was Henry Lee Lucas – this wild man who looked like he should be in a zoo, and it suddenly became clear as day. This is it. This is the movie.

BMD: When speaking with Michael Rooker, he said that he’d been performing in a play with a director who was doing prosthetic work on the movie. Can you tell me what his audition was like?

JM: One of my great talents is finding talent in others. Within thirty seconds of any audition, I know if they’re right for the part. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’ll get the part, just that they’d be right for the character. At the time of Michael’s audition, we had found just about everybody. Tommy Towles, Tracy Arnold – but we still needed our lead, our Henry. The sad thing is: there’s not a lot of working film actors in Chicago, but there are a ton of working theater actors. It’s a huge theater town, especially for performers early in their careers before they move off to LA or New York or wherever. We had found this one young man who was a theater actor and very full of himself. I’m not going to name names, but it doesn’t matter because he didn’t go on to do anything else, really. We offered him the role and he turned it down, and I have not heard of him since. We had another guy after him, but he was a little older and not that sexy. So we thought about retooling Henry and Becky’s relationship into something more along the lines of father/daughter. Then the makeup artist Jeff Seagal came by and said “I know this one guy I’m working with in a play and he’s a little rough around the edges, but may be what you’re looking for”. It was interesting because [co-writer] Richard Fire and I were working on the script together and he had a lot of experience in the theater – much more than I had. He did not like Jeff and did not want to see Michael based on that. I love Richard, be he was sort of a wacky guy; very eccentric. My whole approach was, “well we don’t have the right actor yet, so what could seeing him hurt?”

So we’re sitting at the writing table in Richard’s kitchen and there was a knock at the door. I knew who it was and answered it and Michael was standing there, dressed exactly as he would be dressed in the movie. The only thing we’d really change was his shoes. I just looked at him and my jaw dropped and I said a prayer. I said “please God, let him be able to act”. This was the guy.

BMD: I read that you’d originally intended to shoot Henry all handheld – like a fly on the wall documentary.

JM: I had a cinematographer that I’d met in grad school and his name was Jean de Segonzac, who has gone on to become a rather prominent television director, but before that was one of the greatest handheld cinematographers in America – possibly in the world. He was a skinny Frenchman who was just a work machine. We worked together eventually because he shot the TV series Homicide [which McNaughton directed several episodes of] and now he mostly just directs TV for Dick Wolf [Law and Order: SVU]. At the time, he was signed up to shoot the film, but he was also signed to shoot a documentary in Spain for one of our professors. Usually, most things in this business get pushed back, but his documentary in Spain actually got pushed up, and he ended up having to leave the project. He would’ve been able to work for two weeks of our four week shoot, but we were faced with the idea of having to replace him with another cinematographer halfway through production and still maintain the style. We abandoned that notion rather quickly.

[Henry Cinematographer]Charlie [Lieberman] came out of commercials, and we had one dolly – a really primitive thing that actually worked really well for us, but we rarely used handheld. The whole style changed because Jean was the only one I wanted to do handheld with, because he held the camera so steady. I hate shaky-cam, and you would’ve never known it was handheld because Jean’s hand was so smooth.

BMD: I’d also read that the original “assembly cut”, if we wanna call it that, was close to two-and-a-half hours long.

JM: Yeah, something like that. It was entirely too long.

BMD: Is there any way you can convey the reaction the Alis had to what they were seeing? Again, I have to imagine it was not at all what they expected or wanted.

JM: To their credit, I’ll say this: we shot Henry on 16mm and cut it on a flat bed. Elena [Maganini], my editor, whom I’d work with for many years after Henry, would go on to win the Emmy for her work on Dexter. She’s wonderful. But she’s cutting on a 16mm flat bed, so how do you screen that for somebody when it’s not done? All we had was the tiny flicker screen she peered through while she was cutting. And we weren’t going to bring the Ali Brothers into the city – they lived all the way out in the ‘burbs, mind you – to show them this terrible image quality.

What we ended up doing was taking the video camera the murders were shot on [during the film’s infamously gut wrenching “home invasion” sequence] and set it up on a tripod and hooked up a crappy mic to sync the sound from the flat bed speakers, and we ended up making a really crappy VHS tape to screen by filming the black and white images that were projected out from the flat bed. Now, if you wanna see something that looked like shit, sounded like shit, and ran two hours and twenty minutes instead of the final eighty-three, then do I have a treat for you. What did the Ali Brothers think of it? [laughs] Let’s just say our relationship has never been the same since they watched that film for the first time. I can’t call them philistines, necessarily. It was about the worst conditions possible to watch an early cut – or any cut, really – of a movie.

The lesson you never learn, but I sort of learned here, is never, ever, under any circumstances, show the money, or the studio, or whomever, an unfinished product. You may get a director’s cut and it may not end up that way on screen, but you need to show the most polished thing available or risk getting a million opinions you don’t want. It doesn’t matter what the movie is when it’s finished and polished from that point on. All they remember is when it wasn’t.

BMD: One of the most infamous aspects of Henry is its battle with the MPAA. Walk me through that process and the struggle. Because it was shelved for many years as you couldn’t get an R-rating and, at one point, were even told you’d never get anything less than X, right?

JM: That’s what they said.

BMD: And it was simply because of the tone?

JM: That’s right – the “moral tone”. I’ll give you the exact description, because the Ali Brothers obviously wanted an R-rating, but the ratings board just wouldn’t budge. Now, dealing with the MPAA is like getting into a boxing ring blindfolded, because they cannot tell you what you need to cut. If they did that, then they’d be censors and you could sue them. Instead they come back to you and say “well we have a problem with this scene”. And you ask them “well, what’s the problem?” But then they say “we can’t be specific or else we’re censoring you. It’s up to you”. So you trim the scene down by five frames or seven frames or whatever, and then you send it back. I’ve been through it on a few films, and it really gets pretty stupid. Meanwhile, the Ali Brothers were more than happy to cut the film to get the rating and their money back, but this was my baby; my masterpiece. Of course it was, because it was my first feature. Every director’s first feature is a “masterpiece” and they don’t want to touch one hair on their child’s head. To my delight, the woman at the MPAA said “Mr. McNaughton, there is nothing you can do to change the rating, because what we object to is the ‘moral tone’. Nothing you do will change that.”

BMD: Which is insane when you think about it, because they’re basically saying “this movie is morally wrong” on some level. Then again, I replicated their sentiments by hiding the tape years later in my closet. How did the movie eventually come out?

JM: The production of this movie is nothing if not filled with stories, but Henry was released “Unrated” and there were enough art cinemas at the time to support it. And at the time, there was a big cry because there were a few other films that received X-ratings – Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up, Time Me Down and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – and they certainly were not pornography. So our film, along with these others, led to the invention of the NC -17, which was a sideways move, really, and just a new label for movies the MPAA didn’t like. But we weren’t given an NC-17. We remained either X or Unrated and just recently resubmitted for the rating again and got turned down for the R. I’m actually rather proud of that.