Jack Hill Interview: Director of Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown and Spider Baby!
by Lee Sobel
Jack Hill made some amazing movies in the 60's and 70's -- women in prison films, blaxploitation and other classics of the drive-in/grindhouse movie circuit. He stopped making films in the early 80's but in the 90's he was triumphed by none other than Quentin Tarantino, who not only proclaimed how much he loved Hill's exploitation pictures, but he even went so far as to get Miramax/Dimension Pictures to re-release SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1974) to movie theaters. Not a bad fan to have! My personal favorite movie of Jack Hill's is SPIDER BABY (1967) starring Sid Haig. It's a black-and-white film that is alternately sexy and scary and altogether weird -- if you love movies made by David Lynch or John Waters, you will love it. I'd like to see it on a double bill with Russ Meyer's FASTER, PUSSYCAT KILL! KILL!
Lee Sobel: One of the things that struck me was how strong the women are in your movies. I thought you were ahead of your time. Were you reacting to Women’s Lib or were you just tired of seeing women victimized in movies and wanting to empower them?
Jack Hill: That’s a tough question. I don’t really work like that, at least not consciously. I just thought it was kind of a fun thing to do. It might be that my mentor was Dorothy Arzner - she was the only woman director in movies for many years in the 30's and 40's. I don’t know how much that might have to do with it.
Lee Sobel: I don’t know if you’re comfortable with the term “exploitation” but the genre that a number of your films fell into is a genre where women are often victimized, brutalized. Certainly a lot of the 70's grindhouse movies were pretty brutal, pretty violent. To see women in certain cases of your movies as the victimizer...actually that pretty much runs through all of your films. In SPIDER BABY, the women are the killers that you have to watch out for. One of the things that I love about THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS is how strong the women characters are, especially the protagonist. You certainly manage to milk some jeopardy but at the same time have these great female characters.
Jack Hill: I’m glad you noticed that particular film. Most people don’t give a lot of attention to it, maybe because of the title. I think that’s a pretty good piece of work actually.
Lee Sobel: THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS is one of my favorites of your films. I expected based on the title that it would be some sort of a T & A thing. If you changed the title and took the T & A out, and maybe if the budget was just a little bit higher, that could have been a studio movie, don’t you think?
Jack Hill: I suppose so. I don’t know. A little T & A is a requirement of the genre basically. You don’t get your financing if you don’t have a little bit. I tried to make it tasteful and minimize it. That’s sort of out and out comedy anyway I
think. Could it be a studio movie? Sure. The whole thing about exploitation films is that the major studios caught onto it at a time when exploitation films were more popular than mainstream films. More and more elements of that particular genre found their way into mainstream movies so nowadays there’s no such thing as far as theatrical is concerned. Most of the major studio films are basically exploitation films with bigger budgets.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me a bit about some of the things that you were able to do to make these films as inexpensively and as quickly as you had to?
Jack Hill: I kind of grew up under the influence of the Warner Brothers movies of the 40's. My father worked at Warners and I kind of had a lot of contacts there. Warners was a real tight-budget company and the whole thing about those Warners movies is that they had to work in tight budgets and schedules so they had to come up with better ideas that MGM and Paramount wouldn’t do. So that was kind of the influence on my style and technique of how to get the maximum amount for a minimum means, if I could put it that way. Then I started working for Roger Corman, who was a master of that. I found that limitations stimulate creativity. In order to compete with big budgets, you had to have stronger ideas that on a big budget that they wouldn’t risk because they’re controversial ideas, or just nutty maybe. That gave me a freedom.
Having a low budget gives you a kind of a freedom that you don’t get when there’s a lot of investment and risk.
Lee Sobel: Lee Sobel: Certainly SPIDER BABY is quite an amazing film. Did you have the sense that you were breaking new ground with the film?
Jack Hill: That was a movie where basically it was my first attempt at producing a movie. It might have been foolish but they wanted to do something totally different from what everyone else was doing. When they saw my story they really went for it. So I was allowed to make the movie pretty much as I had wanted. It’s become this popular cult favorite but at the time it was considered to be odd. It was a tremendous risk. I don’t know how to answer your question beyond that.
Lee Sobel: It’s very different in tone and in terms of the looks of the film from your later movies which were made in color. Did you see yourself making more of these kinds of movies?
Jack Hill: It was a one-time thing because everything I did after that pretty much was for basically an assignment for hire with certain genre states, I don’t know what you would call it. PIT STOP was my next film after SPIDER BABY, which a lot of people think is my best movie. It's a really serious movie, almost an art film, about racing. Pretty much after that, I got
assignments where I was lucky enough to have pretty much control because it was assignments from people who trusted me. Within the requirements of the genre as I’d put it, I had pretty much freedom. I just tried to do the best I could with the budget available and the requirements of the genre.
Lee Sobel: What exactly happened with SPIDER BABY? Was it actually released?
Jack Hill: It’s a long and complicated story. The company was in real estate development at the time and when that crashed, they found themselves in bankruptcy. The film was an asset and got locked up in litigation for several years. When the legal things were over, a distributor who had seen it when it was first finished had been watching it and hoping to
get it. He acquired it for distribution and did very well with it for one summer. It wasn’t released in major markets because by that time, black-and-white films, they wouldn’t show them. There was such a demand for color films, especially drive-in theaters. You could only kind of show it as a second feature. But he did very well with all of the stuff and released it a year later under a different title The Liver Eaters. He had a film that he had directed himself called The Blood Suckers and he had this wonderful catchline “Ashes to ashes, best to best. If the blood suckers don’t get you, the liver eaters
must.” That was pretty much the release that it got, pretty much a second feature, but he did very well with it. And then he went out of business and it was just kind of in limbo and forgotten for many many years until home video came in. I think the first home video release on VHS tape was from a 16mm print which was just a horrible, horrible quality. I obtained a copy and when I saw it, I made up my mind that somehow I was going to get access to the negative and make a good transfer and put it out myself, which I did. That’s a whole story in itself how I was able to do that without having legal access to it.
Lee Sobel: I heard a story about how you made a phony purchase order.
Jack Hill: Yeah, then you know about it. Once it was released on home video then it picked up a following and then I got a high-def transfer. I own the negative now, thanks to Quentin Tarantino.
Lee Sobel: Let’s talk about Tarantino. He’s your #1 fan and he released Switchblade Sisters. Who can have a better cheerleader for them than Quentin Tarantino?
Jack Hill: Yeah, it was very nice. I really appreciated it. He is a really nice guy and I like him a lot. Yeah, he’s an amazing talent. He was very helpful in that thing.
Lee Sobel: Do you feel that you finally got some of the recognition that you deserved?
Jack Hill: I don’t know. I’m not the one to make a judgment on that. Yeah, it is a kind of nice because so many of my films were just considered as exploitation movies, in and out one summer blah blah blah at the time are now being appreciated as classics and finding wider and wider audiences, new generations of fans and being taken seriously by reviewers and critics such as you, which is a nice kind of indication. I thought I did something that was a lot better than the normal kind of run-of-mill things. Critics didn’t pay any attention to them in those days so it’s a nice kind of vindication I think.
Lee Sobel: Did you feel that you were typecasted in the exploitation genre?
Jack Hill: Oh yes, and especially because of the blaxploitation films that I had made. That was very much the case.
Lee Sobel: When you walked away from making low-budget movies and you were concentrating on writing, did you have any opportunities to try to get jobs with studios? Did you interact with any of those? Did you have any projects in development?
Jack Hill: I was never much into kind of the networking that mainstream studio
type of people do. I was never able to get into television for example, which I never tried to do. No, the business doesn’t really work that way.
Lee Sobel: Tell me how the business works and what it’s like when you have a career such as yours.
Jack Hill: Again, it’s being typecast. Even though my films are appreciated much more today by critics for example. They still typecast those who do those kinds of movies. It’s very tough to break out of that.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me about the making of Spider Baby? Were there any strange incidents that occurred?
Jack Hill: Nothing outstanding that I can recall. I just shot it in twelve days. That was pretty fast, although some people have done movies faster than that. No, we had shot all the interiors on the stage. We didn’t have anything particularly go wrong. Nothing happened that I actually used in the movie. But with low-budget movies, that’s quite often how it is, that unexpected things happen that turn out to be some of the high points of the movie. Unplanned things that just kind of happen on the set. I can’t go into any specific examples but the main thing about it was everyone so much enjoyed working with each other, shooting, and especially working with Lon Cheney. He was such a very nice guy. Everybody really loved him. It was a very happy production in that sense. Over 12 days, people just really enjoyed working with each other and the cast just hit it off well. That’s what really makes a movie work in my opinion.
Lee Sobel: You actually went to UCLA with Francis Coppola, right? And that’s how you came to work with Roger Corman?
Jack Hill: Yes.
Lee Sobel: Can you give me a good Roger Corman story? He’s known for being cheap. He has been quite successful because of it.
Jack Hill: Yeah, but he’s also talented. He’s kind of his own worst enemy as a director in a way because he had real talent as a director but wouldn’t spend the money to put his own ideas to be well done, you know what I mean? So gosh, there’re a lot of Corman stories I guess but I can’t think of anything in particular that pertains to it.
Lee Sobel: What was your relationship like with him? Was it a comfortable one? Was it combative?
Jack Hill: He can be so lovable and charming one moment and then the next day he’ll have like a black cloud over his head and turn purple at everything and give all kinds of totally off-the-wall instructions to people and demands. Everyone’s jaws just kind of dropped all over the place and they just ignored it. It was kind of screwy in that way, but the best thing that I liked about working with Roger was since he was a director himself, he knew the way to get the best
work out of you as a director was pretty much leave you alone unless you were totally off-the-rails, in which case he knew he could take over himself.
Lee Sobel: What happened with the last movie that you directed for him? Which was kind of like the last straw for you in the movie business?
Jack Hill: The last association I had with him was with the one that I had produced and financed myself. It actually seemed to me that he did everything he could to destroy it for reasons that... complicated reasons.
Mostly the financial collapse of the home video market at that time. It was so bad that I had to take my name off the picture as writer and director. Even after all that, the picture went up and it did very good business. It was a big success and I never got a dime from it out of him.
Lee Sobel: You were very prolific in the 60s and 70s. What would make you say, “That’s it”? And that was the last film you directed?
Jack Hill: I couldn’t get to financing anywhere, the production for the kind of films that I had wanted to do. I didn’t want to do that stuff anymore so it kind of left me out of it.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about working with Francis Ford Coppola. I hear that he borrowed the ending of your student film The Host for Apocalypse Now. Is that true?
Jack Hill: Yeah, you could see it if you got the DVD for Switchblade Sisters, you can see my student films on there.
Lee Sobel: What was Coppola like and did you maintain a relationship with him over the years?
Jack Hill: No, not really. I haven’t been in contact with him over the years, no.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me a little bit about the blaxploitation films period? You said that was really typecasting.
Jack Hill: It’s for this reason, because a lot of
the people that I - friends and associates - that I worked with (like Roger Corman and everything) would make one movie, one low-budget exploitation picture like that and the picture would get good reviews. The picture would be a flop but the picture would get good reviews. Everybody knows that you gotta get something like that to get a start but if you get a review on it, then you get an agent and you get interest from major studios blah blah blah. That’s the way it was. In my case, the ones that I did were very successful and the result of that when you have a big financial success is that then you do a sequel or you do another one. That’s how you get typecast. In other words, if you have a big success on an exploitation movie that makes financial success but you don’t get critical reviews. The way to get bad
critical reviews is to make blaxploitation films because there was a lot of racism among the film critics actually. That’s a whole thing. There was a lot of racism in the whole industry. So you get typecast. In other words, you become the victim of your own success in that sense.
Lee Sobel: That’s interesting, about the racism. A lot of black actors and directors have said that they could only get black men in roles as a pimp or a killer or whatever.
Jack Hill: But they were much happier being able to do that than get roles as shoe-shine boys and maids, you know?
Lee Sobel: What was Samuel Arkoff like to work for?
Jack Hill: I never knew Sam Arkoff personally very well. I had just a few meetings with him, but he was kind enough because I made two movies that were definitely the biggest hits that he’d ever had. Every Christmas he would send me a big bottle of Scotch and a bottle of Bourbon.
Lee Sobel: Did you go and see your movies with audiences?
Jack Hill: Oh yes, it was almost frightening the first time. The audience
would stand up in their seats and yell back at the screen. I didn’t see them in the drive-in theater but one reviewer who saw one of my movies in the drive-in theater talked about how people blew their horns in their cars at certain moments.
Lee Sobel: Was it after every curse word?
Jack Hill: I think he said, “after every violent killing and every dirty word in Jack Hill’s script.” I think something like that.
Lee Sobel: Did you see the movies in L.A. or New York or both?
Jack Hill: I wasn’t in New York. No, just around LA. The first time I saw that kind of phenomenon was with THE BIG DOLLHOUSE when the audience was really...that was not a blaxploitation movie. And then the first time I saw COFFY in the theater, it was almost frightening, the way people were standing up and yelling back.
Lee Sobel: Where was that?
Jack Hill: That was a sneak preview in Pasadena, actually.
Lee Sobel: Were you a fan of exploitation movies?
Jack Hill: Not too much, no. I didn’t really go to see them hardly at all because most of them were pretty bad I thought. Those days I was going to all the French New Wave films and the Japanese older pictures, that kind of stuff. I was never a fan of exploitation films really.
Lee Sobel: What do you think of Hollywood in general after all these years? What was your felling about working in the business and what you had to go through in your career?
Jack Hill: I just kind of fell in. Most of the people I knew were really into film and going to watch all the movies and talking about films and blah blah blah. I just kind of - cause I was a musician actually - I got into film because I wanted to learn how to score motion pictures. I would just get hired to work on movies and get hired to make them. So I basically just did what I was able to get a job doing, you know?
Lee Sobel: I didn’t know you were a musician. What do you play?
Jack Hill: My mother was a music teacher and I grew up from five years old playing violin and piano. And then later I learned French horn and played professionally. And then I learned to play the Hungarian cymbal, which is an instrument that- I can’t describe it. But it was an instrument that a lot of movie composers liked. So I recorded a lot of scores for big pictures - Dr. Zhivago. A lot of TV, that kind of stuff. So at that point, I was doing a lot of scores, a lot of film scores, and I wanted to learn to score the films myself, because I was a musician and I graduated from UCLA in music. And so I got into the cinema department in UCLA with that idea in mind. I took a writing class and they encouraged me to do more and I ended up directing a couple of student films and then getting work in the industry with Roger Corman. It went on and one thing led to another. I sort of fell into it. In other words, I wasn’t one of these movie buffs that wanted all their life to make films. Right now, I’m working on screenplays, just collaborating with my wife here. We wrote a screenplay called Devil’s Fiddler about Niccolò Paganini who was a violinist. We got it out there. It’s a really good script and I’m looking for financing for it in Europe. That’ll be my shot at Academy Awards hopefully.
Lee Sobel: I read that at one time you scripted a sequel to SPIDER BABY. Whatever happened to that?
Jack Hill: It’s still out on the market actually. But I’m not going into a lot of effort to do it because it’s not something particularly that I want to do myself. But the title now is now called Spider Baby 2: Pollen Squirm. It’s a
horror comedy. I’m not really actively pursuing it. It’s on the market and I get bites on it every so often but not enough to put real financing in place.
Lee Sobel: Based on your relationship with Quentin, I have to imagine you haven’t said these words: “Hey Quentin, you’re one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. How about getting me a job directing or writing a movie?”
Jack Hill: That’s the way you lose your friends, if you do that.
Lee Sobel: Has he come to you at all and said, “Hey Jack, can you write something?”
Jack Hill: No. He’s off doing his own thing. I don’t pursue him in any way and wouldn’t want to because everyone else is trying to do that. But that’s not my way anyhow.
Lee Sobel: A lot of people in the movie business have egos that are out of control. Have you had to deal with people like that? Have you had to deal with any difficult actors like that in any of your films?
Jack Hill: No. Not to any great extent. Gee, how can I put that? It’s such a normal thing that you don’t even notice it, let me put it that way. I’ve never had a real problem with anybody in that sense. Just only minor things. All actors are- I mean, actors have a tough job. It’s their face that’s going to be up on the screen ultimately and their voices are going to be heard. I don’t blame them for being...quite often, they’re frightened too that they’re not gonna look good. I’m very
sympathetic towards actors when I work with them.
Lee Sobel: You worked a lot with Sid Haig. He was in most of your films in some capacity. What was it about him versus the other actors that you worked with that you were able to forge this relationship?
Jack Hill: Because he’s such a remarkable individual personality. He’s also a very, very skilled actor that I tended to write almost with him in mind.
Lee Sobel: Another actress who people seem to be pretty fascinated by was Jill Banner. Can you tell me
anything about her?
Jack Hill: Well, if you’ve been reading and I guess you’ll probably know all there is to know, it’s very, very sad, but there was a terrible auto accident. What I have to say about her is, when she came in for a casting call, I didn’t know anything about her. She had no experience at all. She just struck me and all of us who were casting as just somebody that had such a remarkable presence. We cast her in the leading role and she just turned out great. She just had an instinct for it. She came fully prepared and it just amazed everybody. I think the problem with her career was that if she could have had somebody writing for her, writing roles for her. I think she could have had a great career. I think what her problem with her career was that directors didn’t really know how to use her, but she did quite a bit of work in TV and a few features after that.
Lee Sobel: I just interviewed Larry Cohen and I’m sure you know him. One of the things that’s obvious about what appealed to Cohen about making low-budget movies was the degree of control and freedom that he had to make his films. Was that something that you enjoyed in making films, or did you have to deal with all these sorts of interference? Did you have any experiences in other films where either the movie people or the producers or the production company were more meddlesome?
Jack Hill: What can I say. Larry’s right, I was interested in the same thing. When you have a lower budget, you’re much more free. As long as you satisfy your finance people, your producers in giving them the elements that they think they need to sell the movie. In the case of my relationship with AIP, it was a real struggle to be able to keep to include in the film the elements that I thought would sell a movie, which
was humanity and caring about the characters. All they wanted was action, action, action and sex, sex, sex. Which isn’t what sells a movie at all. Fortunately for me, they had a producer there - Larry Gordon- who had a pretty good understanding of this and he kind of supported me and it was a very happy relationship in that sense.
Lee Sobel: So producer Larry Gordon was the head of the production team at AIP?
Jack Hill: Yeah. He had a very great sense of story and he did have an understanding of the elements that make a movie work. Therefore, he gave me support in those matters. That was good.
Lee Sobel: You got to work in the business kind of like before and after the big change that everyone always talks about, how in the late 60s how movies like Easy Rider were coming in and the youth culture was becoming more prominent. It was kind of the changing of the guard in the studios. Was that an exciting time to be in the business? What do you recall about that era of films?
Jack Hill: I wasn’t really involved in much of what you’re referring to, the counter-culture, no. My films did not get the kind of reviews that- I’ll give you a good example. Monty Hellman had made a couple of pictures that lost money but that critics reviewed well. That’s made him how can I say, hot in the sense of a young talented guy. The pictures that I was making were huge financial successes but reviewers kind of sneered at them. I was a little jealous you could say.
Lee Sobel: Do you think that’s changed? Do studios give a damn about reviews anymore?
Jack Hill: Oh yeah, that’s a whole ego thing. You started off by saying today all they’re interested in is making money. It’s always been that way. If you can’t make money, you can’t make movies. But the prestige has a lot to do with it because that’s the ego thing. Sure they want the movies to make money but they also want the Academy Awards and they also want it to get to the film festival. It’s not just all only money and power.
Lee Sobel: One thing that sort of mystifies me about you is that you had a prolific career in the 60s and 70s and then you kind of walked away from that. Wasn’t that kind of risky to give up your meal ticket? What did you do at that point?
Jack Hill: I was writing scripts. I was doing a lot of writing for hire in those days.
Lee Sobel: So you didn’t actually have to leave the industry?
Jack Hill: I did all kinds of writing stuff. I had percentages on some of the films that I made which were very successful. For example, COFFY and FOXY BROWN, my tiny little profit for my participation in those films, I earned many times over what I’d been paid to make them. So that carried me pretty well for a while. Also in 1980 my wife and I went very much on the spiritual path and eventually managed to go to India for a while. We’re still on that. We’re focused on that so it made kind of all this other stuff irrelevant.
Lee Sobel: Your father was in the movie business so you kind of grew up around it.
Jack Hill: Yeah, he was with Warner's from way back in the silent days up until the consent decree put everyone out of the studio business. Then he worked on interiors for a while and then he went to Disney. He ended up designing a lot of the interiors, including the castle.
Lee Sobel: Did your kids go into the business too?
Jack Hill: My son is in the the business but my two daughters are not.
Lee Sobel: What does your son do?
Jack Hill: He was a lead man and now he’s working in Warners at the prop department.
Lee Sobel: So your father worked at Warners and your son works at Warners.
Jack Hill: Yeah, but it’s not the same Warners now. Warner whatever it is, multi-conglomerate. No longer the studio, with Jack Warner running around firing people.
Lee Sobel: It’s interesting to me that you’re devoting your life to seeking spiritual enlightenment.
Jack Hill: Oh yes. My wife and I are very active here. We have what’s called a center Siddah. But nobody lives there. People just come for programs. It’s over on the side and we have programs Tuesday and Saturday nights with some very special programs sometimes. We’re very active. You can look it up on the Internet. You’ll know.
Lee Sobel: What do you think about Hollywood in terms of how the emphasis on making money affects filmmakers who set out idealistically to tell stories that deal with humanity, that are about something more than just action action action, sex sex sex? Do you feel that Hollywood is dangerously seductive to really creative people?
Jack Hill: I don’t know. I can’t really say anything to that. The whole business is so international now. Speaking from a Hollywood point of view, foreign revenues are bigger than domestic revenues, even on local films. My own personal position right now is that the only kind of films I’m going to be in on, or writing more or directing is a film where the audience feels they gain something from it, as opposed to being assaulted, which is the way most of the movies are that I walk out on.
Lee Sobel: Why do you think exploitation movies connected with people? What is it about them that people find so interesting now?
Jack Hill: Different kinds of exploitation movies have different kinds of fans. Yes, you see a movie like The Day The Earth Stood Still. That was kind of an exploitation movie, a science fiction movie and yet even today it has meaning. People find meaning in it. And they have done a remake of it, which just flopped terribly because the people making the movie just didn’t get it, what was really there that appealed to people.
Lee Sobel: It seems to me you worked very well with actors. Do you feel that was one of your abilities over some of the other directors making films like the ones you were doing back then? Did you have affinity with actors? Did you like working with them?
Jack Hill: Some I liked working with, some I didn’t like working with. But yeah, my experience, I learned what the actors’ problems are and I learned how to help them, instead of... It’s like the first rule of medicine: first, do no harm.
Lee Sobel: Were there any critics who didn’t like your work back in the day who have now reassessed your work?
Jack Hill: Roger Ebert was actually relatively kind to Coffy but the only actual review that was positive from somebody who got the point was The New Yorker. The New Yorker did not reveal who reviewed the movie but you know The New Yorker puts these little one-sentence blurbs. They said what the movie was about. They said, “Revenge as an ethic of honor.” I thought that was a really insightful comment. It didn’t make anyone buy a ticket but I thought that was pretty good. Somebody was paying attention.