Frank Henenlotter Interview: Basket Case, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, Bad Biology and more!
by Lee Sobel
In 2011 I interviewed director Frank Henenlotter for a book on filmmakers I was working on that I ended up abandoning. It was a good time to speak to him because I had recently watched his movie Bad Biology (2008) that is really worth seeing if you missed it. It's by the director of the cult movie Basket Case (1982) and it was the first movie he had directed in 17 years since he had made Basket Case 3 in 1991. Bad Biology is everything a Frank Henenlotter film should be: it's shocking, funny, and a nightmare of body horror. I hope we get to see more movies like it from this amazing director who loves making his films. Henenlotter is cherished by horror/exploitation fans and continues to work, including directing the recent documentary Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana (2018).
Lee Sobel: What is filmmaking like for you?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh, it's miserable, hard work. It's compromised. It just is. It's the nature of the business; it's the nature of money. There's always a compromise, even if it's just sticking to the schedule. You only have X amount of days, only X amount of time. And you have to work with actors and crew that you can afford. I can't pick up the phone and ask a Hollywood A-lister to do a cameo.
Lee Sobel: I'd like to talk about the humor in your movies.
Frank Henenlotter: There's a fine line between horror and comedy. And part of the fun with Basket Case, you never knew what punchline you were going to get. Whether the punchline was going to be a comical punchline or blood in your face. And I think they’re both equally valid and, in some cases, the blood in your face is equally funny. I always enjoyed blurring stuff.
Lee Sobel: So when you made Basket Case how hard was it for you to find a theatrical distributor?
Frank Henenlotter: It was surprisingly difficult at first because all of them expected us to just give it to them. We wanted some money up front. It was just a hassle dealing with those companies.
Lee Sobel: Analysis Film Releasing seemed like it was a pretty interesting company, though it sounds like you didn’t have a very good experience.
Frank Henenlotter: For us, no we didn’t. It was not a good experience and that’s that. I cheered when I heard they went under.
Lee Sobel: Your dream was for Basket Case to play 42nd Street and it eventually did.
Frank Henenlotter: Eventually. The front of the theater had the display up front with the photos. I was just thrilled it finally
played there, although they did spill the plot. They would have things that would say “Sex!” “Violence!” “His brother‘s a Siamese twin!” It’s just like, well, thanks.
Lee Sobel: Did you go to the Cannes Film Festival when Basket Case played there in 1983?
Frank Henenlotter: No, I really had no interest in going. That was selling it. That’s business. And it wasn’t in the Cannes festival. It played at the marketplace of the Cannes festival. So I never went there, despite Rex Reed claiming I was there.
Lee Sobel: Is that right? He claimed you were there?
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah. That’s what he said; he’s got the quote. He said the director of the film ran after him saying, “Mr. Reed! Mr. Reed! What did you think of my movie?” And Reed turned in disgust and said, “It was the sickest film I've ever seen.” And that’s not quite the version Analysis told me. They told me they paid him for the quote. I wasn’t at Cannes and I wouldn’t ask his opinion if I was. So whether or not his opinion was real, I don’t know.
Lee Sobel: When Basket Case was released and played at The Waverly theatre in New York City, how exciting was that?
Frank Henenlotter: For me it was always anxiety; this is why I didn’t see my own films. Every time I went to the theater, I was always convinced the audience was going to hate it. And even half way through the film
and if the audience was reacting the way I was hoping they’d be reacting to everything they’d seen so far, I’d still be nervous for the next half of the film. Then they’d love the film. But then I’d be thinking, but next week’s audience won’t. I remember being in The Waverly Theater one night, after the film was over there was some gentleman there. He spontaneously started to discuss the film and dissect it, as if he was a major critic or something. And people were listening to him as he pontificated from the theater down the stairs and out to the street, under the marquee. And I’m standing there listening to it. I thought, “Oh, this is kind of interesting.” He’s talking about how great the film was. And then he added the caveat, “However you must understand, the director did not know he was making a comedy. This is all unintentional.” And I remember thinking, “Well, fuck you buddy. You try getting people to laugh at the same spot, every week.”
But, you know, something happened all these years making movies, I stopped caring about that. So with Bad Biology, I have no trouble getting through it with audiences. And I don’t care if anybody loves it or hates it. It’ll find its own audience. Anything I do it will find its own audience. Maybe it’s a small audience. Maybe it’s only four guys who are going to like it. I don’t know, but it’ll find its own audience.
Lee Sobel: After the success of Basket Case, you started taking meetings with Hollywood, right?
Frank Henenlotter: Basket Case was seen as a fluke. No one really thought there was a talent behind that. It was just like a crazy fluke movie. After that, the people we were meeting were film investors. Not Hollywood types at all. And we kept getting offers but for the
same amount of money. In other words they figured, “Well, you could do that for $35,000. Here’s another $35,000.” I thought, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” We could not get a substantial sum of money. When I wrote Brain Damage it was read by Embassy Pictures. They wanted it and they agreed to make it and all of a sudden Embassy was sold. Everything was on hold; it was sold to Coca-Cola. So we were on hold there. Embassy, Coca-Cola, whoever had it, they said, “Okay, we’re still going to make it now.” And then Coca-Cola sold the company. So we made Brain Damage for Andre Blake, who was the former head of Embassy.
Lee Sobel: Did he put up his own money to make the film?
Frank Henenlotter: Yes, he did. And then he became partners with
Elliot Kastner in a company called Cinema Group. The organization, Cinema Group, absolutely hated Brain Damage and did a campaign to ensure its failure. Andre asked me to make two versions of the film because he wanted to have an unrated version to sell on videotape only, so it would be an extra thing. The folks at Cinema Group took the footage that I did as if I was some kind of pornographer. They were just dismissive of the film. They got it out of there, made sure it failed and then buried it. It was only when it came out on home video at the time, and it was cut at the time on home video. It was not only cut by the MPAA but cut by Cinema Group. They took some scenes out of it that they didn’t like. It was only then, though, that it found its audience. It found a substantial audience. That’s really how I got into SGE, through Basket Case and Brain Damage. Especially when Jim saw Brain Damage and said, “That’s what he did for $35,000. Here’s what he did for $600,000 and it looked good.” So he wasn’t afraid to say, “Here’s a million-five. Go make it look better.” And we did.
Lee Sobel: Who were some of the other companies you were meeting with back then? You must’ve met with a whole bunch of Hollywood people.
Frank Henenlotter: No, most of the companies we met with were videotape companies. That’s where you get the money for this stuff.
Lee Sobel: Media Home Entertainment was the one that released Basket Case?
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, but they weren’t interested in funding the next ones. So, I never met any Hollywood types until after we made Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2. And briefly I had an agent. And he flew me out, made me do all these meetings at
Columbia and Disney. [sighs] I forget the other companies now. You know, legit stuff, pitching some ideas. And nothing came of it. I just didn’t think I belonged in that atmosphere, you know? When I enjoy the films, I enjoy the nuts and bolts. I enjoy physically doing the writing, the editing of the movies. It bothered me when, even on the SGE films, we were going by union and I couldn’t edit. I could only supervise the editing. That drove me crazy. All I was allowed to do was put grease pencil marks on the film. So I physically like doing that stuff. I like camera operating.
Lee Sobel: You did very well with Basket Case on home video.
Frank Henenlotter: I said it’s important we put a price tag of $19.95 on this film instead of what VHS movies were selling for like $49 or $59
at the time. Because what I was counting on was that every kid who read Fangoria could afford $20 to have a copy of this bloody, gory, disreputable horror film. And we’d be the only one out there like that. And that’s exactly what happened. When we went sell-through with it, the numbers were astronomical. Media Home Entertainment was totally caught off guard by it. They had back orders up the wazoo; they were thrilled. And they were so thrilled that they said, “Okay, we’re going to promote the shit out this thing for Halloween.” Originally they were against doing it but when they saw the numbers they said, “Okay, he’s right.” So that Halloween they sent a Basket Case poster to all the Mom and Pop video stores. They did all kinds of pushing and the numbers were phenomenal. It made a fortune. Of course by the next year, everyone else caught on to it. That one year, that one window, where we were the only ones out there like that you could make a lot of money like that. And
we did. And even though the next year there were like a hundred movies out there like it, Basket Case still sold well because the stores remembered it from the year before. So, they knew it would sell. It was just that one little window but I’m glad I pushed for it.
Lee Sobel: Do you have any idea how much money Basket Case has made over the years?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh, it must’ve made at least a hundred bucks.
Lee Sobel: Let’s talk a little about the period prior to making Bad Biology. I get the feeling that you had no intention of directing ever again.
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, pretty much. I wanted to take things in a more surreal extreme. I wanted to make more radical types of exploitation films. I knew I could make them commercial. But I wanted them to be more extreme and still be commercial. And it happened around a time when all those theaters were dying. The exploitation films died. Forty-second street died. All those independent film companies died. SGE died.
Lee Sobel: You made three movies for Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment.
Frank Henenlotter: I had a wonderful working relationship with them. I had so few disagreements except maybe making a
cut here or there. I really had so few problems with them. I originally wrote a stronger ending for Basket Case 2. Jim Glickenhaus called me up and said “You’ll never get away with this. Please come up with something else.” And I said, “Fine, fine, fine. Sure. No problem.” I understood what he was saying. We’re trying to make commercial films. I had no problem with it.
Lee Sobel: When he says, “You’ll never get away with this," he means the ratings board?
Frank Henenlotter: Yes. When we approached them with Frankenhooker, SGE asked, “How can we do this film without an X?” And I said, “Well, when I kill all these women, I’m not going to have any blood or gore. I’m going to do this like fireworks. It’s going to be hilarious.” Even though there’s body parts. We don’t need to show gore. It’s comedy. I never approached Frankenhooker as a horror film. It was always approached as a comedy. And they agreed. And they, like I, thought I delivered an R rated film. The problem we had was with the MPAA at the time, which I thought was a very corrupt organization. I don’t know what it’s like today, but back then I thought it was rigged. The proof of that was when Richard Heffner, who was then the head of the ratings board, called the secretary at SGE after the screening of Frankenhooker, and said, “You just made the first film that is going to get an S rating.” And the girl was confused. She said, “S for sex?”
And he says, “No. S for shit.” And that was the ratings board. It’s supposed to be an impartial, nonjudgmental organization who is all a crock of shit. SGE, to their credit, stood behind the film and said, “Fuck it. We’re not going to take the X. We’re not going to take the R, either. We’re going out unrated.” They did prepare a DVD version for certain video stores that wouldn’t touch an unrated film. But they also kept that X-rated version in print the entire time. So the unrated version of Frankenhooker, they always made available. I thought they went above and beyond. So what I’m trying to say is that they were exceedingly supportive of the three films I made for them. If they were still in business, I’d be doing more.
Lee Sobel: I know you did Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2 back to back. When you did Basket Case 3, was there a fourth film you were supposed to do?
Frank Henenlotter: Yes. It was a film called Voodoo Doll that I wrote. What was happening was, already the market was changing. There was a financial crunch on at the time. And despite everybody’s best efforts, I got the call and they said, “We’re really in trouble now. We may be only be able to do one film.” And we all agreed Basket Case 3 would be the smarter because we still had all the props. Everything was already done. We wanted to do another back to back film because it worked so well the first time. It’s just the way it is. But SGE was an extremely supportive company. I really enjoyed working with them and working with Jim. We’re still friends. Jim has an appearance in Bad Biology.
Lee Sobel: Why did SGE go out of business?
Frank Henenlotter: They were selling exploitation films; mostly action, but
they had a lot of low budget horror. When the screens disappear, and all that’s left is a handful of screens controlled by the majors, where are you going to get your film shown? It’s the same thing with the DVD market dying now. Where do you get your DVDs sold if the stores aren’t carrying them anymore? Once upon a time, you didn’t even worry about where you were going to open a film. You had dozens of theaters, just in Times Square alone, that would’ve taken your film. You didn’t have to worry about it. By the time we did Basket Case 3, they were seriously worrying about where we could show that film. And even at midnight it was getting problematic. So, it was all dying. And it just seemed like a good time for me to step away and take a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if I was going to give it up completely or just take a break. I originally thought, “Let me take a break.” But when I said break, I meant for a couple of years, anyway. And over those years every so often someone would be saying “Hey, we got some money. You interested?” And I would say, “Well, sure. If it’s real, let’s do it.” Turned out, the money never materialized and this and that. And RA and I always talked about doing a film together. We always wanted to.
Lee Sobel: You guys were going to do a film for Fangoria that fell through, right?
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah. That seemed like a sure thing, for a while. But it wasn’t Fangoria that was going to fund it. They had a producer that was getting funding. And I don’t know what the story was with that, but after three years with them I just said “Okay, I’m out of this.” I wrote a script that everybody liked and I still like it; I’m still going to make it.
Lee Sobel: Is that Sick in the Head?
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah. And I wrote that version of the script with RA Thorburn. I want to make it but I want to change the plot significantly. It won’t be the same movie, but it’ll have the same title. It’ll have maybe the first ten minutes, but from then on it’s a different story. But anyway, the last I heard the producers involved with it gave me a call and said, “We took it upon ourselves to cut 20 some-odd changes out of the script.” To which, I’m thinking “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Thanks for showing respect of the writer.” I should’ve done the work on that. But no, they just arbitrarily took the pages out themselves. And they also removed all the special effects that were in the film. This was a special effects based plot. People have hallucinations and see things. They said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You don’t need the hallucinations. What you’re going to do now is just create a lot of tension, like the Saw movies.” And I said, “If I wanted to make a Saw movie, we should’ve discussed this in the beginning. And I told them
no, I’m not going to make a Saw movie.” So basically, at that point, they no longer had an option on the script. I sensed something coming in the first year, so I would not let them redo the option. If the deal is good, let’s do it. If the deal is not good, then I’m taking the script and going elsewhere. So, it was easy for me to walk away with it because I still owned it. It was very disappointing, to put it mildly. At a certain point, I felt like they were treating me more like I was a janitor than a film director. So, that was unpleasant. And that’s why there’s a great happy ending to that movie. Because RA said “I can get a small amount of money.” But I said to him if we had a plot that didn’t require monsters and special effects, then we could do it. And we did Bad Biology and that’s that. And we really worked hard on that. And there were a lot of scenes we wrote, by the way,
where there were ideas where I said “Well, that’s going to cost a lot of money. We better tone that down a little. Let’s change our minds.” We rewrote it with that budget in mind.
Lee Sobel: I certainly didn’t feel, watching Bad Biology, “Oh, I wish this film had more effects.”
Frank Henenlotter: Like I said, we wrote it with that very narrow budget in mind. There were scenes where we had the Jennifer character walking the streets at night and I said “RA, can’t afford that. We’re not going to shoot it on video. We can’t light the streets.” And he said “Okay then, let’s try it this way.”
Lee Sobel: I had heard on the commentaries for Frankenhooker and Basket Case that you did the shooting yourself.
And they said you fired the DP on Frankenhooker and before the new guy started, you were shooting.
Frank Henenlotter: Right. I shot Brain Damage and Basket Case. The person listed as Director of Photography did the lighting. I physically shot those films and I also physically set up where the cameras were going to be and what lens we were going to use. On Frankenhooker, the DP we got flaked out. I had no choice but to continue. All the scenes in that seedy hotel were all shot by me.
Lee Sobel: Did you shoot any of Bad Biology?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh yeah. I shot it all and I loved it. The best DP I ever worked with was Nick Deeg. He loved lighting. He didn’t mind doing all the difficult shots. So all the footage of running through the house in the beginning, chasing Batz running naked throughout the house, I’m not doing that. I’m too old for that shit.
Lee Sobel: Kevin Van Hentenryck who later starred in Basket Case was in Slash of the Knife.
Frank Henenlotter: And that’s not on there. Now that you said it, they’re going to put it on there.
Lee Sobel: What interests me, in terms of fans of your early work, why don’t you release your early work? Slash of the Knife would make a great extra feature on a movie.
Frank Henenlotter: No, it wouldn’t. These were not films that were made to be shown. (Note: Since we did this interview, Slash of the Knife is now available on one of the Basket Case blu ray's.) This is me learning how to
shoot a scene, how to light, how to compose. This to me doing homework. If you were talking to an author, that’s like saying “Can you release all your English homework assignments?” No, it’s ridiculous. I can release my footage of me shooting my family at the World’s Fair in 1965. I don’t think really think that’s a movie. No, these were films I made with friends that I showed to friends. I never did a commercial screening of it, of any kind. I made this to be self-indulgent. That’s the fun of it. Get it out of your system. I though Basket Case was very close to those early films. But that one I was less self-indulgent and I knew I was trying to make something commercial. That was different. But that other stuff it’s not going to see the light of day. It shouldn’t.
Lee Sobel: Wasn't Slash of the Knife rejected to open for Pink Flamingos because it was too shocking?
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, that’s true. That was a rerelease of Pink Flamingos. It was at Cinema Village and it was just a short to play with Pink Flamingos. It played once and the manager hated it and that was the end of that. I thought it would be fun to do a phony sex hygiene film from 1952 that extolled the virtues of circumcision. And I thought, “Well, that’s a strange idea.” And that’s what this is. It’s a 30 minute phony sex hygiene film that equates circumcision with goodness, holiness, and all that’s right with America.
Lee Sobel: One of the things I noticed is that you don’t really like to talk about the ideas or subtext of your films.
Frank Henenlotter: No, I don’t.
Lee Sobel: In one interview that you did with Robert Martin that I read you two labeled the subtext of your films as “sexual loathing," which I think is relevant to Bad Biology. It seems to be a running theme in your films.
Frank Henenlotter: I don’t think so. I disagree with that.
Lee Sobel: The point is it is unnerving to audiences, sexual loathing.
Frank Henenlotter: People are more uncomfortable with sex. If you have a beautiful girl in a bikini, everybody likes it. If you have an old woman in a bikini, now you’re creating trouble. It’s something that’s very simple. It’s something that doesn’t take much to subvert and get a huge reaction to. But yeah, I get what you’re saying with subtext. But I don’t even know what half of Bad Biology is about. It could be this; it could be that. I follow the story. The story made sense to me. Where the story went seemed organic and correct. What it means? Who cares? Believe me, I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh what subtext am I going to play with this time?” Oh God, no. I never confront it until I’m asked about it or read a review.
Lee Sobel: It just springs out of you. I read an interview where you’re saying it started with the idea of something springing off a guy’s body.
Frank Henenlotter: Yes, that’s all it was.
Lee Sobel: It sounds as if you’re saying the concepts of movies just sort of spring out of you.
Frank Henenlotter: Well, I had a visual. I had a visual of a young man with some kind a parasitic creature living on his body that leaped off and killed people. Why would a guy let a parasite be on his body? Well it could be because he has no will power of his own but we’ve seen those films before. I thought what if he had willpower but was struggling with it?
What if he really left the parasite on him, at least in the beginning? Well then the question is why would you do a thing like that? Well drugs, I suppose. Well I like the two of them; let’s combine them. That’s the plot, I’m outta here.
Lee Sobel: Let’s talk for a second about the choice to shoot Bad Biology on 35 millimeter. Aside the fact that you like it...
Frank Henenlotter: No, no, no, no. The most important thing was my fear that if I shot it on video, given how sleazy the subject matter is, it would look sleazier. I thought given the
subject matter, if I not only shot it 35 but make it look rather nice on 35, it would make the film better. Don’t hold the camera too much. Do very traditional formal shots. I thought that it would diffuse things a bit. And that’s what I was doing. I wanted friction between the look of the film and the subject matter. And I think we did it. It was a hell of a price to pay because every cent of the budget went into the 35 millimeter.
Lee Sobel: Were you also thinking about the film getting theatrical distribution?
Frank Henenlotter: Not at all. No.
Lee Sobel: No? Really?
Frank Henenlotter: No, no. We thought, yeah, there may be a few play dates here and there at certain film festivals. But no. This day and age it’s not a film that’s going to go out theatrically. No, this was made to be a direct to video.
Lee Sobel: You edited the film on Final Cut Pro? How do you feel about the digital revolution?
Frank Henenlotter: Well, it makes sense under certain circumstances. I guess it all depends on what you’re looking for as the look of the film. And that’s that. In terms of stuff like Final Cut, I grew up on the old Steenbeck. And the limitations of editing on 35 millimeter film were astronomical. You could never see your dissolves, you could never see your fades. You were limited in how you sped up a shot and slowed it down. It was just one limitation after another with 35. It was accepted because there was no other alternative. But once I saw Final Cut I thought, why would anybody go back? There’s pros and cons with the digital. In terms of the technical end of it, it’s phenomenal.
Lee Sobel: Are you thinking about making a movie in digital?
Frank Henenlotter: No, I’m not. We’re hoping to shoot something maybe the end of this year. And if I do, I’m shooting in Super 16. Because I want a lot of handheld, I want it on a steady cam, I want a lot of movement. And it would just be easier to do that than to lug a 35 camera around. Super 16 blows up beautifully. veryone would assume it’s 35. It has a film look, it looks real. That’s just the practicality of it.
Lee Sobel: What’s it been like to deal with the company that just released Bad Biology, Mediablasters?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh, Mediablasters. Fine. They got it out there and got it in stores. And they put it out on Bluray, so I've got no complaints.
Lee Sobel: How much did it cost to get Bad Biology in the can?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh, I don’t know. RA has the numbers on that.
Lee Sobel: A couple of hundred grand, or something like that?
Frank Henenlotter: Right. Yeah, it was very little. It was the cheapest film I made since Basket Case.
Lee Sobel: I read this in an interview, and I know this can’t be true, that you cut an 85 minute movie out of 90 minutes of footage?
Frank Henenlotter: It couldn’t have been 90 but basically the point was that it was a 3 to 1 ratio. We only had 45,000 feet of film. Alright, so you could do the math. And when we were over at Technicolor, and they said, about them processing it, “How much footage are we talking about?” We said, “About 45,000.” They said, “Oh you’re doing a short, huh?” Yeah, we were limited and that’s that. And I accept those limitations. One of the reasons that I worked hard with the actors was I had to tell them we can’t do six takes on the set. We have to do one or two. And we gotta move fast. And it was rough but they understood it. o we would do run throughs and rehearsals, but once the camera’s going, I’m sorry. I gotta keep going. I like it. I like shooting fast and loose. I really do. I have no patience anyway.
Lee Sobel: What’s the reaction you’ve been getting at film festivals and stuff? What sort of response have you been getting?
Frank Henenlotter: I think Bad Biology works better with an audience because you’re not afraid to laugh at it. I think other people laughing lets you know it’s okay to laugh at some of this stuff. I think watching it by yourself might be a little bit more confusing. But it’s been playing great. I love seeing it with an audience. I can stand outside, if I don’t want to go in, and I can tell by the beats of laughter exactly where in the film we’re in. That moment at the end where Batz says “It’s back” gets such a huge amount of laughter that I know when I hear it it’s five minutes until the end.
Lee Sobel: Can we talk about the body horror in your movies?
Frank Henenlotter: I've always been scared of body horror. That really does scare me. And as far as the body horror, my personal thing is I'm not scared of the supernatural. So I'm disinterested in vampires, werewolves. I'm not saying there haven't been good films. I'm just saying I can't work myself up enough to write a werewolf movie. Or another vampire movie or another zombie movie, unless I get a spectacular idea I suppose.
Lee Sobel: I understand you had your own personal body horror issues during the production of Bad Biology.
Frank Henenlotter: The month we started shooting Bad Biology I
was diagnosed with cancer. So that's like whoah! And RA, of course, was immediately upset and he said "Look, we can postpone shooting the film." And I said "No, no, no, no, no! I'm not going to do that, it’s not gonna beat me. The treatment I'm taking isn't going to hurt me and I'm in no pain. And I wouldn't even had known that I had the cancer if it hadn't showed up in blood tests. Let's go forward with it." Making Bad Biology was actually fabulous therapy for me. In fact the doctors saw my recovery as happening much faster than they thought. They never saw such a dramatic change of course with something like this. And that’s because I wasn’t worrying about the cancer. I was worrying about the movie. So it was very, very therapeutic. I got up in the morning every day at 6:30. I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital, all these radiation machines blasting into me. I was taking hormone therapy at the time, which just blew me up fifty extra pounds, which I still can’t get rid of. But then I was on the subway, heading to Brooklyn, and we were shooting the movie. And only RA and the DP knew about this. Already I was perceived as the old man, you know what I mean? I was a fucking dinosaur on that film. Everybody was in their mid-twenties. And I didn’t want to be perceived as being an invalid, on top as being an old man. So I didn’t want anybody knowing about it but it was marvelous therapy.
Lee Sobel: So did you feel any after effects of the radiation? Did you feel tired?
Frank Henenlotter: No, none whatsoever. The only after effect that I had was, for a period of time, about two or three weeks, I had no bladder. And, oh my God, that is tough. Because there would be times where we’re setting up a shot. It took 20 minutes to set up the shot, another 20 minutes to get everything in place, 20 more minutes to do this, do that. We’re ready to go. I say to everybody “We’re ready? We’re rolling sound? Oh, Jesus Christ! Cut!” And I jump out of the back door of the place, hoping I can get to the bathroom before I started spraying in my pants. It’s just rough, you know. And then I sheepishly came in, saying “Okay, let’s continue.” That was the only drawback, you know. And still, the crew just figured, “Oh, that’s what it’s like when you’re an old man.”
Lee Sobel: Because they didn’t know, wow.
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, they thought “Well, Frank’s got a weak bladder.” I don’t think they knew that I had no bladder. And that took a while to get back, it’s all muscles. It all comes back. But for a while there, I would walk around and try not to drink any liquids if I knew I was going on the subway. It was sad. But I was in no pain. You honestly wouldn’t know anything was wrong. No, except for the fact that the doctors were telling me there was.
Lee Sobel: That last shot in Bad Biology was definitely the money shot. When that baby penis monster waddles across the screen...
Frank Henenlotter: We got that shot a year before we shot the film and there were holes in the script. I still didn't know how we were going to get there. I knew a year in advance that that was the last shot. I even sketched up a scene for Gabe Bartalos telling him: this is what we need to create; we're only going to see it from one angle. And it's going to do this. Originally it was going to walk straight out of the scene. It acted up on the set. It never worked. It was on wheels originally. The wheels are painted out with CGI. And the leg is made to move with CGI. The wheels kept sticking in the blood. We must've done forty takes of it. Finally, the last take, it curved slightly right. And that was the shot we got and it was better than what we wanted.
Lee Sobel: Was it creatively satisfying to make Bad Biology with RA Thorburn who produced and co-wrote the movie with you?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh, yeah. Even though this was RA's first film he produced it correctly and right. Which I knew he would because we had done a bunch of music videos together. I know a music video isn't the same as a feature, but in each case he spent the money correctly. And
that's what impressed me. And he always came up with a couple of dollars left. I was almost talking him into it. "Yes you can produce this. I know you can." He had a rough time producing because he worried about everything. And he didn't find fun in things that I did because I stopped worrying about everything. But it was a solid relationship with him. He did respect what I was doing and he made it happen. That's the thing. I'm boggled a lot by "Frank's movie Bad Biology." It's also RA's movie Bad Biology. He was a hands-on producer and he can claim as much ownership as I can. We wrote it together, for God's sake. And when you have a partnership like that, where the director and producer also wrote the screenplay, that's rather extraordinary. We knew going in what the film was about and how radical some of it was going to appear. And how crazy it was. Originally we did very traditional things when we were writing it together. We originally we had the two stories of Batz and Jennifer intercutting and we thought "That's so ordinary." Then we filled Jennifer's story with voice-over. Then we thought let's not do that with Batz. We were ready to break so many rules. It's going to play odd to people but that's what we wanted. That's very much his film as it is mine.
Lee Sobel: Watching Bad Biology made me realize how bored I am by the horror genre. I'm watching films and I feel like I keep seeing the same stuff
over and over again. I mean, how many zombie films can they make?
Frank Henenlotter: You're right. I don't watch horror films anymore. I still voraciously see movies. What I’m doing is watching movies from the past. I'm trying to see every film noir ever made by Hollywood. I'm going in the past. I was getting bored to death with slasher films in the 80s, when already you saw a formula. For God's sake, horror films by their nature should not have a formula. It should be anarchy. So, I was bored with the horror genre a long, long time ago. That's fine. I'm not even sure if Bad Biology is a horror film. To me, it's more like a crazy sexploitation film.
Lee Sobel: I assume that John Waters must’ve loved Basket Case. When did you first meet him?
Frank Henenlotter: When I was editing Basket Case, he was there. We were at an editing place Phantasmagoria, which had editing rooms and he was editing Polyester at that time. One night he was tired so he walked into my room and he said, “I’m exhausted. Show me something sick.” I showed him the scalpel scene and he said “Oh, thank you so much.”
Lee Sobel: I heard you invited John Waters to a screening of Bad Biology.
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, sure.
Lee Sobel: And what was his reaction to the movie?
Frank Henenlotter: I think he was a little startled by it.
Lee Sobel: I heard he told you that he liked it but it was just so dirty.
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah. That’s what he said. I said, “Oh, that’s okay.”
Lee Sobel: Of all your movies, which one do you like the best? Do you have a favorite? You said in a lot of interviews that you hated Basket Case.
Frank Henenlotter: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. A lot of that was quite out of context because what I hated about Basket Case was how it looked. Something went terribly wrong from the blow up from 16 millimeter to 35. So what was playing and what was out on video was this dark movie that looked like it was shot without any lights. In the beginning of Basket Case when it was 35 millimeter film, you couldn’t even see what was happening outside. That isn’t what I shot. I shot a film that had light and color. I only liked Basket Case when we finally did a digital transfer for DVD and I was able to make it look better, to make it look like it did on the original 16 millimeter version. See, it wasn’t the film I disliked. It was the look of the film. But I guess my favorite was Brain Damage, up until we made Bad Biology. That’s my new favorite.
Lee Sobel: Can you talk about some of the other projects you developed over the years?
Frank Henenlotter: You know what? I hate talking about films that never happened. Really. And I can also cannibalize ideas from them at some point in the future. So, I’d rather not talk about them. I don’t want to give away a good idea to someone else.
Lee Sobel: Can you give me an idea of how many projects that have never been produced?
Frank Henenlotter: Not too many, maybe three. I don’t write unless there’s a reason to write. If I think I can get a deal going, then I’ll write something for it. If I don’t, then I’ve got other things to do.
Lee Sobel: I love the story where you’re pitching Insect City to James Glickenhaus and he said “I love it but you’d be insane to make this. No one would see it.”
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, that’s basically what he said. He said actually, “No one would see this film.”
Lee Sobel: Have you ever had any major problems on any of the sets of any of your films?
Frank Henenlotter: I guess the biggest crisis was when we actually set the mansion on fire on Bad Biology. That was terrifying because we would’ve lost the house, the film, the investment and everything. The house had no running water, so we were trying to stomp it out. And the little bit of water we had was the bottles of water and coffee and milk. And then we ran out of that and the fire still wasn’t out. I had a 12 pack of diet coke. I held my breath, went back through the house, through the smoke. When the fire department came, I had a half empty bottle of coke in my hand. The fire chief came up to me and I said, “It’s okay I put it out with diet coke.” And he didn’t smile, he thought I was being a smart ass. And then he looked down at the pile of cans at my feet. And he said “Wow. Listen, however you put it out, you did the right thing.” But that really did scare me because there’s no back up for burning down a historic mansion.
Phallic imagery in the movies of Frank Henenlotter. Left: Brain Damage (1988); Right: Bad Biology (2008)
Frank Henenlotter: In my living room, on the floor. I used to have it in the bedroom but people didn’t see him in there. So, I brought it out, and I leave it on the floor now. It startles people. And they don’t see him right away. They’ll be talking and they’ll be “Oh Frank, whoa! What’s that?!” And then the next thing they want to do is have their picture taken with it, of course.
Lee Sobel: So what damage did the fire do to the house?
Frank Henenlotter: Well, it had a nice hole in the side of the house. But we covered that with insurance and the owner didn’t care. Because he was hoping to tear the house down and build condos. So he wasn’t upset about that. We got very lucky with that.
Lee Sobel: Where is the penis baby from Bad Biology?