Interview with Lee Demarbre

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Name: Lee  Demarbre.

Occupation: filmmaker, cinema programmer, exploitation movies lover.

Filmography: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001), Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace (2004), The Dead Sleep Easy (2007), Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero (2008), Smash Cut (2009), Stripped Naked (2009), Summer’s Moon (2009).  

Thank you for giving me the opportunity of this interview. To begin with, could you introduce yourself to our readers who may not know who Lee Demarbre is?

My name is Lee Demarbre. I currently program films at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, Ont. Canada. The Mayfair (founded in 1932) is one of the oldest operating cinemas in North America. I am also co-owner of the cinema. I have completed 7 feature films as a director and am currently getting ready to direct my 8th film this winter here in Ottawa.

To my knowledge, you are passionate towards exploitation movies, something easily noticeable in many of your works. Where did your love for underground movies start? Were you a regular to the nearly extinct grindhouse theaters, popularly known Spain as “cines de barrio” (neighborhood theaters)?

My passion for exploitation cinema is apart of who I am. I graduated high school in 1992. I have always loved movies, but until I went to University I didn’t really understand anything about the 7th art outside of what I saw coming out of Hollywood. In 1992 I started a Film Studies program at Carleton University. The best thing about my University experience is that it opened me up to International cinema, art-house cinema and it allowed my to explore what is considered exploitation cinema. I remember taking a trip to New York City in my 1st year for Film Studies. We took a bus to NYC from Ottawa; roughly 8 hours long. On the bus my Film Studies professor smoked a ton of pot. Along the trip down he put on the Shaft (1971) soundtrack; which I never heard before. Hearing that soundtrack changed my life; I needed to know everything about Blaxploitation. I came back from NYC with bags full of Black Cinema on VHS. During my first year of Film Studies I also discovered Bettie Page, Doris Wishman, John Waters, Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer, Fred Williamson, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Santo, etc. My passion for cinema forever changed!

You are Canadian. There has been a very representative horror movies production for the last decades in your country, with David Cronenberg or Bob Clark as a few examples (who despite being American, he carried out some of his classics in Canada). Besides, it is more and more usual to find plenty of low-budget movies being filmed in these locations. What is your opinion of this phenomenon? Do you think this could develop to a new trend of low-budget masterpieces, following the idea of the Australian “ozploitation”?

Genre filmmaking in Canada has always been a big deal, mostly since and because of the tax settle era. This lasted for over a decade throughout the 70’s and 80’s. I believe filmmakers turn to exploitation when one is working in a world that isn’t centered around the star system. Hollywood success is based on the fact that star power works. However if you are a filmmaker with a small budget who can’t afford a movie star, or you live in a part of the world that provides no access to movie stars … as a filmmaker … you will find yourself creating a type of film that will draw an audience without relying on who is starting in your film. Out of this came Kung-fu films, biker flicks, the gore genre, wrestling films, etc. In a way this effort makes for a better quality of filmmaking. Low budget filmmakers, working within a genre of exploitation are often forced to work harder to bring their sleeze to the big screen. From David Cronenberg to Sam Raimi to Jackie Chan to Russ Meyer — the exploitation audience is very lucky to have such talented filmmakers to gaze upon. Give me The Gore Gore Girls (1972) any day of the week over Out of Africa (1985).

You oversee the schedule at the Mayfear Theater in Ottawa, specialized in the projection of classic movies that are not strangers to the more commercial theaters and the proliferation of the old double feature sessions. Could you describe your work there? Do you know any of these similar Spanish theaters, like the Phenomena Theater in Barcelona?

I’ve never been to Spain, can’t tell you if I know of any cinemas there, but one of my Film Professors at Carleton was from Spain (who gives Jesus Christ a blow-job in Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter) and from what he told me; Spain has an amazing underground film going audience.  As programmer of the Mayfair Theatre; I just try and have as much fun as I can screening movies. At least once or twice a month now I get to screen something I think to myself, “wow – I can’t believe I’m aloud show this movie to a crowd in Ottawa”. I have been a rabid cinema goer since I was young; it’s a dream to be doing what I get paid do to.

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Mayfair Theatre. 1074 Bank St, Ottawa, Canada.

You made your debut with a couple of short films starring one of your main recurring characters, Harry Knuckles, played by Phil Caracas. Here we can see certain tone of parody and sarcasm on exploitation movies, especially on martial arts, which can be defined as your trademark in your first projects. ¿Could you name some subgenres or movies that may have influenced you to achieve such tone in these first short films?

Kung-fu, horror, wrestling, sexploitation, blaxploitation and musicals are the easy ones to reference as inspirations. I remember after graduating the Film Studies program at Carleton University (after 4 years) I thought to myself it was time to make a movie. However I had no idea what I wanted to do first. When I look back on my first few films I realize that I kind of made every genre in those films. The “Harry Knuckles” series and Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter are a melting-pot of genres. Sometimes when I watch those films back I’m surprised to see what kind of films (besides the obvious ones I listed above) had an influence on me. You might be surprised to hear that Woody Allen is one influence I would have to put right at the top of my list. I would also include Sammo Hung, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah, David A. Prior, Larry Cohen, Dario Argento, Monty Python, the Zucker Brothers and many others – just to name a few I haven’t already listed before.

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Harry Knuckles and The Pearl Necklace (Lee Demarbre, 2004)

Then you jumped to the full-length film with a continuity of the style embedded in the first Harry Knuckls’ short-films: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. We can see here the same influence from martial arts, Blaxploitation and even Mexican luchador culture with the cameo of the popular Mexican icon El Santo. What can you tell me about this movie, its funding, reception and the fact that it is considered a cult classic? What would you say to those who consider this movie a blaspheme?

The film was shot over the coarse of 2 years (shooting mostly on weekends). It cost me about $45,000.00 to finish; finish with a 16mm answer print I should add. The film was shot entirely on 16mm film, and cut on film! I’m very proud to own a few 16mm prints of the film still. All of the budget went to buying and processing 16mm film. The most I spent outside of affording the film stock was on a $200 wig of Phil Caracas to wear as Jesus throughout the 1stact of the film. The negative cut on the film cost over $12,000.00 and  another $10,000.00 was spent to a sound mix. Not much left over. I received a few artist grants but mostly the film was afforded by me out of my own pocket; and a few others who worked on the film. We had no producers or investors to make that movie. Considering we made a Kung-fu action-comedy-horror-musical about the second-coming we never received a ton of flack when releasing the film. While making the film here in Ottawa we had a few Churches upset with the fact that we were combining the fantasy of Vampirism and the reality of Jesus Christ, but once the film came out we rarely hit on controversy; which was a bit of a disappointment – I was hoping to rely on a little bit of bad press to get the word out about our film. The best thing about the mild success of the film was and is the film’s title. I didn’t need a movie star to make a film entitled “Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter” – that title turns a lot of heads and sold the movie! I still find it a rather young film to label it a “cult classic” – now 15 years old we probably need to wait another few more decades to see wherein the movie lies within that banner of films. I can say I don’t find the film blasphemous; it wasn’t our intention to upset any believers or non-believers. We did our best to have fun with the type of film it is, but at the same time to took it a little bit seriously by sort of trying to write our own 3rd Testament in the story of Jesus Christ.

In 2007 you deep jump into wrestling with The Dead Sleep Easy, written by your colleague Ian Driscoll…Following the same theme, a year later you present Vampire: Angel, Devil, Hero. A movie about the life of the wrestler Ian “Vampire” Hodgkinson. Is this movie a desire of trying other narrative stiles or simply the recognition of the figure of Ian? Do you think that this project, risky at first, influenced your career as a filmmaker?

I was trying to make an action film in Jamaica when I ended up making two films in Mexico. Driscoll and I thought the story of Ian Hodgkinson (aka Vampiro) would make for a good film; a narrative film not a documentary … a sort of Boogie Nights (1997) with wrestling instead of porn. However after meeting Hodgkinson and pitching him our movie; he convinced us on making a documentary about his life. While making that doc for two years; we took a 30 day break to make The Dead Sleep Easy (which in a way is a narrative film based in a part of his life). I never really ever saw myself making a documentary (let alone a feature length documentary) but with Vampiro I felt was lead down this path; and I can easily say that Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero is one of my personal favorite films. So I am thankful for that. The Dead Sleep Easy was risky, but not a creative risk – but a huge risk to everyone’s life who was in Mexico with me at the time making that film. We had real guns, drugs and gangsters on set. People disappeared from the face of the earth while making that film! It was scary! We should probably change the subject. I will add that I’m really happy with the way the film came out. It was the last and only feature film I shot on standard definition digital video. We had the film up-rezzed to HD and for whatever reason it looks the best of all the digital video features I’ve made; including the last three that were all shot in 2K.

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Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero (Lee Demarbre, 2008)

In 2009 you shoot Smash Cut, a movie with a higher budget with a clear tribute to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films, who even collaborates in the movie. How did you come up with this project, and how did Herschell end up taking part in it?

Smash Cut was a dream project; I still think of it as a dream come true. Kind of like Gareth Edwards being luckiest “Star Wars” fan in the world who would got to direct Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) … I got to direct Smash Cut in the same regard; but replace the words “Star Wars” with “Herschell Gordon Lewis”. Ian Driscoll (the writer) and I wanted to make Smash Cut right after the last “Harry Knuckles” film. Back in 2001 my wife (pregnant at the time) and I traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida – we went to visit Herschell Gordon Lewis at his home and pitch him the idea of making a remake of Color Me Blood Red (1965), which eventually became Smash Cut. Herschell was very supportive. While we were there I recorded his voice over as the radio announcer in the film. Herschell directed us to the Suez Motel (the setting from Blood Feast [1963]) where we went and shot 16mm footage for the film. After that we drove to Sarasota to visit most of the locations from the original Color Me Blood Red where again I shot 16mm establishing shots for my remake. After we got back to Ottawa Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace was released and I partnered myself with producer Rob Menzies; who lead me to Mexico to direct a documentary and a narrative film. After we returned to Ottawa and released those two films I pitched my remake of Color Me Blood Red to Rob; who convinced me to make a tribute film to all of Herschell’s films rather than just making a remake of one of his films. That is how Smash Cut was born. It was incredible to have Herschell come up to Canada to be in the film. Equally amazing was having Herschell Gordon Lewis regular Ray Sager (who played the original The Wizard of Gore [1970]) in the film as well. Smash Cut changed my life; I became very close friends to many of my heroes. I’m still very close to Ray Sager, Sasha Grey and remained extremely close to both David Hess and Herschell Gordon Lewis up until their untimely death.  I wish I was still on set of Smash Cut; not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was.

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Some weeks ago, we suffered the loss of Herschell. How would you define his role within this genre? Was he conscious of his importance and relevance towards future directors?

Herschell invented many of those genres, and kept progressing each genre until his retirement after The Gore Gore Girls in 1972. Herschell never consider himself an artist; nor did he ever feel the job of a filmmaker was in an artist vein. We quote Herschell at the beginning of Smash Cut saying, “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form“. This is where I disagreed with Herschell for as long as I’ve known him. All my favorite filmmakers had a certain penmanship with their camera work and editing choices. I love the kind of filmmaker who you could recognize without looking at the opening or closing credits of the film to see their name, but by the way you could tell they were behind the camera by the certain look of each of their films. Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Russ Meyer and John Woo all have a certain penmanship that made each of them artists in their own right. Herschell Gordon Lewis had this too. I tried convincing him of this for a long time; in the end I decided to make Smash Cut to prove that to him the best way I could.  Herschell has inspired and will inspire many as any great artist could.

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Was it easy to have an actor such as David Hess in Smash Cut? Ruggero Deodato that during the filming of The House on the Edge of Park Hess behaved in a quite peculiar way on set, with a lot of improvisation. How was it filming with him?

Funny you should ask this. Originally we offered the role of Able Whitman to David Cronenberg; who liked the script but had a scheduling conflict. I thought it would be great to have a filmmaker playing the filmmaker in the film. Pierre David (Cronenberg’s producer for many of his film and one of the producers on Smash Cut) asked me “who next; who could you see as Able Whitman?” I cast Sasha Grey because to me she was a brave performer in her own right and I wanted a risk taker in that role. So I thought to myself, aside from Sasha Grey, who was the bravest actor I’ve ever seen in front of the camera. The House of the Edge of the Park came to mind; in particular a 40 minutes interview with David Hess on the Skriek Show DVD release of that film. David says things in that interview that I’ve never heard any actor say; it’s a mind blower. I also thought he seems like a dangerous performer; someone who seemed like he could jump off the screen. In actually David is a sweetheart. Hess has a gigantic heart! But when the camera is on him he is as intense as one could imagine. Hess saw himself as a method actor; and I tried to respect that as much as possible. He didn’t want to learn his dialog; like Brando he placed post it notes around the set so he could grab his lines out of thin air and come off as someone who was just saying or being without someone who had memorized anything. It was thrilling to watch, but also tested everyone’s patience. So many ideas in Smash Cut are things that were invented on set that David would come up with. We often found on set, but the way brothers would … tending loving fights – haha! I learned a lot working with David Hess, I wouldn’t change any of what we done together, I love him like a brother and I wish I could still be in his presence.

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You also worked with another important figure as Michael Berryman…

Berryman was a ton of fun, and a close friend of David Hess. Their scene together in Berryman’s office with the Oscar is entirely improved. Both Berryman and Hess told me they had made a bunch of films together but never got to improve; so I made sure that happened for them. Berry wore the suit he got married in in Smash Cut – he gave it to me after we wrapped with him; I still have it hung in my closet. There is no one like Michael Berryman; I’m very lucky to say I worked with him!

2009 marked the debut in conventional films for Sasha Grey, the pornstar, with both your movie and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. How was the experience filming with her?

Every moment being around Sasha Grey before, during and since filming Smash Cut is absolutely thrilling! She defines the meaning of muse. I know no one more inspired or as inspiring as Sasha Grey. And my kids love her too! I’ll never forget seeing Sasha for the first time in a movie … let me start at the beginning … I was a big fan of Belladonna. I have a theory that porn killed erotica. So many filmmakers like Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger, Tinto Brass, Doris Wishman and others stopped making erotic cinema because XXX was born and the “less is more” tease of erotic cinema was no more. In my point of view “erotic cinema” was dead until Belladonnna got behind the camera. She was exactly what the adult industry needed; and was doing something as a filmmaker that I found thrilling to watch – and I watched every new Belladonna movie like it was a new Woody Allen film. Then Fetish Fanatics #4 came out and I saw Sasha Grey for the first time. Her scene with Belladonna in that film is the most genuine form of erotica in 21st Century erotic cinema (in my simple option). I was in Mexico making Vampiro when I decided to find Sasha Grey on MySpace. I was stunned to learn she was a cinephilia like me! She expressed her passion for cinema in a way that made me feel like I was looking into a mirror. I thought to myself that I had to get to know this woman and how I would love to work with her in some regard. I emailed her the script for Smash Cut and I met her at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles the first time. Her script was littered with notes; I was impressed! She expressed an interest in working together and I was absolutely inspired getting to know her. The second time I met her I was with David Hess; Sasha invited us over to her home. It was important for me that David and Sasha got along; but I wasn’t sure they would. Sasha told me she was a huge fan of John Cassavetes and I told her that David Hess grew up knowing Cassavetes. I asked David to tell Sasha a story about knowing Cassavetes; to which he agreed. David told Sasha about how John Cassavetes tought him so much about acting and how someday David hoped to tell a young up and coming actor the same things John taugh him. As David told this story he started weeping about the memory of knowing Cassavetes. As this happened I slowly turned my head to see Sasha crying as well. That was moment I knew David had connected with Sasha and I wanted to start shooting Smash Cut immediately. And shortly after this the three of us were in Ottawa shooting the film. Sasha adored David Hess; it was lovely to watch the both of them on and off set together. Sasha was just as intense on set as was David. I could easily compare David’s style to that of Marlon Brando but I couldn’t compare what Sasha was doing between takes to anything else I’ve ever seen or heard about. She was electrifying on set to watch her prepare for a scenes behind the camera and just as much in front of the camera. I’ll never forget being with her between takes; she was inspiring!

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Among some of your projects we can find Stripped Naked and Summer’s Moon… Do you consider them important for your filmography?

Not really. I was a hired gun on those films. You if you watch all 7 of my feature films; 5 of them I am credited as “Lee Gordon Demarbre” as director – but with both Summer’s Moon and Stripped Naked I am credited as “Lee Demarbre”. I asked for this from the producers. The “Gordon” is my real middle name; I started using it to draw a comparison to Herschell being one of my inspirations. Removing “Gordon” from the credits of my films might also tell (those who know my previous work) that this film is not your typical “Lee Gordon Demarbre” film. I will say I loved working with the cast and crew on both Summer’s Moon and Stripped Naked; I made a lot of close friends because of those film – namely Stephen McHattie who I speak to all the time still and hope to work with again soon.

I would like to ask you your point of view regarding the current state of the genre, now that many producers focus on films from past decades, maybe reviled in those days but now becoming more popular by the fans. Is there any current horror director that you follow or think that he may be considered as a new Master of Horror?

I’m not terribly crazy about the horror genre to tell you the truth. I find most new horror film ineffective. I no longer find gore effects gory or creative and I haven’t been scared watching a film in a long time. It might not be the quality of filmmaking; it might be the fact that I am completely jaded from seeing so many horror films over the years. For one thing; I still prefer any of the new George A. Romero films (Land, Diary, Survival) over Walking Dead. I think my tastes are old-fashion. One of my favorite films this year was Train to Busan (2016); best zombie film I’ve seen in years. I did like The Witch (2015). I should say I love gore and I did love the gore at the end of The Neon Demon (2016) even though it’s not really a horror film. Midnight Special (2016) is a terrific film; but again maybe not a horror film. My favorite film of 2014 was Snowpiecer and I loved Killer Joe from 2011 (one of William Friedkin’s best films!). I thought I would have hated but I loved the remake of Maniac (1980) starring Elijah Wood back in 2012 – I listen to that soundtrack in my car repeatedly. And I do think the best film so far of the 21st Century is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000). I guess I am more into extreme cinema than horror films. I’m not sure I could label any specific horror filmmaker a “master”, but I was say that filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve, Jeff Nichols, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noé and Louis C.K. are among “masters” in their own right.

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I would also like to ask you, out of curiosity, if you know any horror movies made in Spain, both current or past? Any favorite?

Yes! I have always loved Acción Mutante (1993)! At the Mayfair Theatre here in Ottawa; I made sure to use the Acción Mutante logo (the guy in the wheelchair with the machine gun) as our wheelchair access sign. If you come to my cinema in Ottawa; Spanish horror films are well represented!

Could you tell me any future projects you are currently working on?

I’m hoping to shoot my 8th feature film this winter entitled Bring Me the Five Heads of the Deodato Family. It’s an extremely violent and sexy film; I’m super excited about it!

5 heads one sheet poster

Thank you so much, Lee!!!

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