Charles Band (Part 1)
This epic interview with Charles Band, the man behind Empire Pictures and Full Moon Films, was conducted over the course of two phone calls in June 2005, just as Charlie was launching a new film-making venture, Wizard Films (which shortly afterwards reverted to the Full Moon brand name, probably wisely). It was intended for publication in Psychotronic magazine but unfortunately, while I was editing this into a feature, Mike Weldon’s marvellous publication closed down. So here it is, in its entirety, for you all to enjoy. (This is by far the longest interview I have posted on this site. It runs to four pages and 9,500 words.)
What is the difference between Empire, Full Moon and Wizard?
"The difference hopefully will be that Wizard will be exclusively carrying the films that I create and probably in most cases will direct. One hopes you learn from your mistakes. It's a very tough business and there are always things pulling at you - and sometimes not for the right reasons. So in the past I have sometimes been involved with partners who, with all the good intentions, pushed the mechanism that we had created - Empire and its releasing arm, and Full Moon to some degree too - to release other product. To get bigger and to broaden the original scope.
“You end up distancing yourself from what you dream of as a kid. In my case it was going out and making genre films, not being a bureaucrat and spending most of my time behind a desk trying to move the company forward. So if there's anything different with Wizard - and I hope I can maintain this - it's that Wizard is exclusively going to be for my movies. If I have the energy I may end up directing all of them. A few may go to some of the directors who have worked with me in the past and done terrific work, like Ted Nicolau and Stuart Gordon. But I just want Wizard to be totally true to the vision I have. It will do everything: conceive, produce and release genre films, including the action figures that will be tied to most of the releases. I hope that for the first time it is exclusively my shop and it doesn't get too confused with other genres and film-makers. That's not a quick answer but it's not an easy thing to answer quickly.
“Empire of course was in the eighties; we did theatrical distribution and so on. That started off as one thing and became another. The first few films were my films and the last year I think of the twelve films that were released only two were films I was directly involved in. And Full Moon in a way had the same problem. Originally the distribution arm was Paramount and we had to follow the beat of their drum. By the time we pulled away, the video business had changed and a lot of things were done to try to keep making some money and cover overheads. A number of movies were made that had little to do with me. They were made on digital video and a lot of new directors were given their first chance. Anyway, long story short, I hope that Wizard - third time at bat - will be true to the vision of the movies that I want to make and release, along with action figures and other related possible merchandise."
From the fans' point of view, your business model seems to be based to some extent on Roger Corman's. Is that true to any extent?
"I guess to some degree. I don't really think that way. I know I'm compared to Corman just because I've made almost 300 movies and he's made twice that."
He's been going longer than you!
"It's fair but there are a few differences. One, I'm dedicating my films exclusively to one genre and he did everything from - well, you know his repertoire. He didn't just make horror films and sci-fi movies. He was also a very successful distributor of many other films from other people, whether it was Fellini movies he acquired for US distribution or other art films during the New World days. Corman has been a distributor of many films, not just his own; he acquired many, many movies. I guess in a way, for a number of years, to some degree I did the same with Empire and with Full Moon. But at least the movies that I've made have all principally been in the horror/science fiction genre."
If there's a recurring theme in your work it's puppets and dolls. It's like you're just building yourself a huge toy-set.
"Some of this is budget-driven. I feel that less is always more. To attempt bigger things, bigger sci-fi/horror themes on these very low budgets is just impossible without making yourself look stupid. To some degree, I think I can do a good job with some of the recent movies and scenes that do involve these diminutive little characters and killer dolls and puppets. But some of the projects coming up are completely out of that realm so it won't be every one but there's no doubt that part of the absolute plan for Wizard is to create movies that, at their core, do have puppets, monsters, creatures, characters that are - if the word exists - 'toyetic'. That can be turned into action figures because I love that through-line and I think the fans dig it too.
“We're doing very limited editions. These aren't mass produced; we're averaging about 2,000 or 2,500 toys per character. Considering there's a worldwide audience out there, that's not a lot. So I like that, I like the scarcity, I like the fact that a lot of the early puppets that were released as Full Moon toys you can find on eBay for hundreds of dollars. These were toys that were originally sold at ten, fifteen dollars. So there's something about that that I like. There may be some other adventures when it comes to merchandising, things that can be tied into movies and either built into the film or discovered. But I do like that part of it.
“And of course the actual puppets and dolls - anything that's anywhere from eight to sixteen inches in the movie - really lend themselves well to action figures and models and replicas. So there's a little bit of all that in there, but you'll see there's some films coming out - one I'm about to start shooting - where the monsters are nice and big. Nothing small! No dolls in that one."
The first film you're credited with is Mansion of the Doomed, although you had done some earlier work in Italy with your father. How did you get Mansion of the Doomed together?
"You know, I've made enough mistakes. I just jumped into it. I wanted to make my first movie. I wanted it to be a horror film. At the time, unrelated to the film business, I had a successful little gift item business. I was real young, I was 21, and even though I'd grown up on a movie set and apprenticed with my dad and certainly knew a lot about the craft of film-making, I had no business training - which I really regretted later in life. I was thinking: boy, if I could just have spent a few years in a business school I would have avoided a lot of pitfalls. But I certainly had all the energy and passion to make my first movie. Between my own money, and I brought in a few investors, we jumped into Mansion of the Doomed.
“It was originally called The Eyes of Dr Chaney. That was the title I would have preferred to release it as - this was years before The Eyes of Laura Mars - and It would have been kind of a cool title. But I learned the first of many lessons: when the picture was done I gave it to a distributor, got a very small advance, never saw another penny - or a report, for that matter. And that's one of the great pitfalls of making small movies. Small distributors, even if they have good intentions, have nothing but problems. Usually they don't pay the producers.
“Eventually if a producer or director is looking at being prolific and having some longevity in this business, they will realise that the only way to protect themselves is to do their own distribution, not give their baby away to someone who will do everything including putting a bad title on it. That was his title. There was a distributor called Group 1 who wanted to call it Mansion of the Doomed which, even back then, sounded terrible. At least The Eyes of Dr Chaney was a little classier.
“I put it together and at the time interesting people were involved. The editor was John Carpenter who was a friend at the time - and no-one knows that. Andy Davis who became a big-time director was the director of photography. Stan Winston, who was a very close friend, did the effects. And I forget who else, there are probably a few I'm forgetting. It was Lance Henriksen's first movie. When I look back, it was an interesting group of people. I'm proud of the movie. It's actually a well-made small movie, it's classy, and it just suffers from the terrible title."
A few years before that was a film called Last Foxtrot in Burbank which has been obliterated from history. I'm guessing that's one you're not so proud of.
"That's obliterated for good reason! I was involved very peripherally. In some cases my name was attached or wasn't attached. So somewhere in the mix I did have some involvement in the movie and I'm glad if it's substantially erased because it was just something I helped someone out with and the next thing you know it somehow got stuck to me as a movie I made, which is not the case, nor did I direct it or anything. So the first real movie that I put my name on officially, that was my first genre film - I pulled in people who were friends - was: I want to say The Eyes of Dr Chaney but it really was released as Mansion of the Doomed."
You then went straight into making a whole series of films: Crash and Cinderella and End of the World - that whole production line thing. It wasn't a faltering start. Was the plan to make one movie and then immediately start making the next and so on.
"That's what I did. On those first seven or eight movies, unfortunately, I had no involvement with distribution and it was a miracle I survived that period because you don't even really get enough money to get the next movie going. It's just torture, and it's still extremely difficult if you control distribution, and I can look at all the differences over 30 years. I can't believe it's been 30 years. And of course there have been some years when the video business was amazing and it really fuelled thousands of movies, most of which probably shouldn't have been made, but nonetheless there were good years for people making small movies and bad years.
“But back then it was extremely difficult because there was no video, there was nothing. This was a theatrical world. You made a movie, it had to be on film, you had to cut a negative, you had to release it in theatres and try to make a few dollars. There were no ancillary markets. Home video didn't really exist, of course the internet didn't exist, there were really no television sales, maybe just a few local stations. That was in the days when these were truly B-movies; they would be the B-side of a double bill. They would get released theatrically and you just hoped a few dollars would be collected because they played at drive-ins and around the country. That was it, there was nothing else.
“The price of entry to the industry back then was steep. Because we weren't in a digital world, there was no real cheap way of anyone getting in. No matter how many friends would work for free, you had to rent the equipment, you had to buy the film, you had to cut the negative, you had to make prints which were expensive back then and are still very expensive today. So whereas today a kid with some talent (or lack of) can buy a digital video camera and a computer and for literally a few thousand dollars make a little movie. If that person has some training and is talented it can actually look and feel like a movie. Those tools did not exist thirty years ago."
You worked with two of the horror greats during this period: John Carradine in Crash and Christopher Lee in End of the World. That must have been a thrill.
"It was a thrill, absolutely, because I grew up watching all of their famous movies. It's funny: you wish you could go back with a little more maturity and enjoy the moment. I was certainly excited and aware of the people I was working with - but I was in my early twenties and I could have done things a little differently. But just the fact that I worked with them. I worked with a lot of wonderful people.
“I also worked with people who, at the time, were just young actors or actresses who went on to become very famous. I guess I could make that point 20 different times. But to have worked with Christopher Lee and John Carradine, you've actually cited the only two - well, Richard Basehart was also a thrill. I loved his work and he was another fantastic actor. But when it comes to the genre of horror movies, working with Carradine and Christopher Lee was really amazing."
Possibly Laserblast is the first recognisably 'Charles Band' style film, with the aliens and the cool title. Was that the way you wanted to go?
"I'm not the only one who does this, but a strong title, of course, has always been important and the idea of combining two words or really putting a lot of thought into the title before a picture is even written. Corman did it too so I can't claim that was my idea but I certainly focussed on that a lot. Most of the films that I made, that I conceived, that I was very involved with and in some cases directed, definitely started with the title and usually a piece of artwork that made sense. Then I would work back to the script and the story and make the movie. So that little formula has worked for me.
“There are so many films that get finished and people are still scratching their head as to how to market them, what to call them, looking for a title. They make the movie with a tentative title. That's not to say you can find that the inspiration doesn't come after the fact, but it's really hard when you're approaching a release date to be trying to still figure out how to market and sell your movie."
Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Charles Band discusses Tourist Trap, sequels, Trancers, Puppet Master, Subspecies, Dollman, Shrunken Heads, Troll and The Dungeonmaster.
Or jump to Part 3 where he talks about Piranha Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, Intruder, Clive Barker, Full Moon, adult films and children’s films.
Or jump to Part 4 where he talks about Filmonsters, JR Bookwalter, digital video, William Shatner and DVD Special Editions.