An Interview with Director William Lustig
From Maniac to Blue Underground -A Life In Exploitation Cinema
by Lee Sobel
If you live long enough, even directors like William Lustig whose cult horror movie Maniac tripped off an attack from feminists when it opened in grindhouse theaters in 1980, can be rediscovered and respected for their work. Lustig made his movies on the mean streets of New York City and is now owner of a very successful home entertainment company, Blue Underground, which regularly releases genre movies now in high definition 4K with tons of extras that make owning their blu ray's a must for collectors.
There are several interesting things about William Lustig you may not know. He's the nephew of former boxing champ Jake Lamotta who was portrayed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's 1980 movie Raging Bull, which De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar for and which was released the same year as Lustig's Maniac. Lustig went to NYU film school for one year. Prior to Maniac, Lustig directed two porno movies under the name Billy Bagg. I interviewed Mr. Lustig for a book I was writing that I aborted several years ago. Until now, this interview has never been published.
Lee Sobel: A number of the movies you directed like Maniac played in the grindhouses on 42nd Street. What are your memories of going to those theaters?
William Lustig: I started going to 42nd Street movies in '69, '70, '71, '72. Those were probably my prime years there. You always had a sense that there was a dangerous element. But I always took precautions. I avoided, as much as possible, going downstairs into some of those bathrooms. I found out some of the cinemas had ground-floor bathrooms, so I would hold it in to go to one of those, as opposed to one of those where you had to go down the stairs and there was a cavernous feel to get to the bathroom. You kinda knew that that could be a trap.
Director William Lustig on the set of Maniac
with actors Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro
At the theaters, I just kind of kept to myself, like a fly on the wall. I didn't go on the balconies. What bothered me the most were the rats. I was doing Jack LaLanne exercises to keep my feet off the ground because you would hear them rustle in a potato chip bag, and you knew what it was. And of course you had the reminder of the cats running around. They used to let cats run around the cinemas to go after the rats.
I remember kind of bonding with the audience when it was a really cool movie. Like I remember seeing the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its first run, on the second day it opened. And I'll never forget it—but the audience, we started talking to each other, like “Oh my God, this is amazing.” Finally, a movie delivered what it promised.
Joe Spinell in William Lustig's Maniac
Caroline Munro in William Lustig's Maniac
Lee Sobel: Audiences just don't talk back to the screen anymore like those 42nd Street days.
William Lustig: Well, you know what the problem is? Today's audiences, and they're all guilty of it, are no longer talking to the movies. They're talking on their fucking cell phones and texting.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about going to NYU film school? You only went for one year?
William Lustig: Well, what happened was, I was working in the film industry starting in the early '70s, and the reason I went to NYU was, my uncle was Jake LaMotta -- and it was a dear
friend of his, Peter Savage, whose real name was Peter Potrella. But Peter Savage for many years was trying to get my uncle's life story made. He was trying to get Raging Bull made into a movie. And prior to that, he was just very close friends with my uncle. Pete was making some low-budget movies in the late '60s, later segueing to pornos in the early '70s. And I began working for Pete Savage. And at one point, he said to me, “If you're serious about wanting to be in the film business, then you must go to NYU. That's where Martin Scorsese went, and that's where you gotta go.” I said, “You know,
Pete, I don't have the money to go to NYU.” And he paid my way to go to NYU. It was September '74. And I left in '75. That was the period I went to NYU.
Lee Sobel: So what happened?
William Lustig: Well, what happened was, Haig Manoogian (the head of NYU film school at the time and a mentor to Martin Scorsese) and I got along really well. But he was a crusty old guy. I always talked about movies like Truck Turner. I thought Truck Turner was a masterpiece. That was my thinking about movies. I saw a lot of the art movies. But I was not as affected by art movies as I was by exploitation films. So one day I'm in Haig Manoogian's class, and I had been out all night, and I had a hangover, and I had gone to one of those delis and picked up a couple cups of coffee and a bagel, and put myself in the back of the room, sort of hidden away, so I was there but I wasn't. Well, they were showing some of those NYU student films. The students in the class were showing their movies. And I got so tired of those Washington Square Park movies. Back then, when I was there, everybody started to make these pantomime movies. Because they didn't have sound. So if they didn't have sound, they figured, “Oh, I'll get a pantomime artist. I'll get some pantomimes—a friend of mine—and then I'll do things where I'll stop the camera and the person disappears from the frame” and all this kind of stuff. They all used what I called the NYU backlot, which was Washington Square Park. So there was one of those films that somebody was showing. And I was like, “Oh, I can't take these things any more. I just can't take it.” So after the movie's over, Haig Manoogian goes, “So, Lustig, what'd you think of it?” And I don't know what caused me to do it—it really was rude, but I did it—I said, “Hey, I wouldn't show that to anybody but my family and friends.” And he said, “Lustig, the only movie you understand is Mandingo.”
Lee Sobel: Wow. That pretty much says it all. So, let's talk about the '70s porn industry. Before the San Fernando Valley became the hub of the porn industry, New York was really where it was at, right?
William Lustig: Yeah. Well, there were two industries. There was the Northern California porn industry hich was using all those free love girls on Haight Ashbury, the hippies. In New York, you had the Mafia which was producing the movies. And you had basically people acting in the films, who were aspiring to do other things. They were NYU and Columbia students. You had people who had aspirations to become actors, who actually thought that being in a porn, there would be some gateway to acting. And then, of course, you had the people who were drug addicts and people that were kind of losers. But
mainly the people who were in New York were pretty together. And that was the two groups. All of them were inspired by the success of Deep Throat and later The Devil and Miss Jones, but mostly Deep Throat started the gold rush, where everybody was trying to cash in on it. Because all of a sudden, porn came out of the raincoat ghetto and became something that was mainstream, something that was reviewed by The New York Times, that was seen by couples. It became part of the culture. It was no longer dirty.
Lee Sobel: You worked in production on mainstream movies, then directed two porn features and then you made Maniac which was shocking at the time for its realism, whereas a movie like Halloween had the violence offscreen. Were you trying to take the horror genre a step further?
William Lustig: I think the realism, frankly, came out of the fact that we had no money. We shot the movie for $48,000. The limitations that I had became an attribute to the movie. It wasn’t something I wished for. But in retrospect, I look at it and see that was what gave the film its own distinction. It had a very gritty, documentary feel. We shot on locations with minimal lights, minimal crew.
Lee Sobel: You built this movie around Joe Spinell, right?
William Lustig: Right.
Lee Sobel: And so, unlike in movies like Halloween where the bad guy’s like “the shape” or in Texas Chainsaw, where it’s a lumbering leatherface who you can imagine your own ideas onto this kind of shapeless mass, you built Maniac around a really great actor who tried to bring nuance to his performance, and therefore make it seem a lot more real and therefore more shocking, right?
Joe Spinell and Tom Savini on the set of in William Lustig's Maniac
William Lustig: Well, I was very influenced, not only by the movies you mentioned, but also by movies like The Honeymoon Killers. I thought that movie was one of the greatest movies I ever saw. So in doing Maniac, what we tried to do is make a compilation of the serial killers of that period. And that was our goal, because I was interested in Son of Sam.
Lee Sobel: What do you remember about Son of Sam? What comes to mind?
William Lustig: What comes to mind is I remember the fear the city was in. I remember picking up the newspaper—I was following it on a daily basis. The letters to Jimmy Breslin, and all of that, it was riveting. It was like being in the middle of a
murder mystery where everybody around you was involved.
Lee Sobel: Now, one of the other things about Maniac, besides its gritty realism, and great performances, are those
fantastic money-shot horror effects, like Tom Savini's head blowing off. It’s so graphic, and it’s really well done. For a $48,000 movie, man, talk about putting the money on the screen. Was it the poster for the movie that caused all the uproar with protestors?
William Lustig: The poster was definitely a lightning rod. The poster that became the symbol for that period, where people were upset about all these movies coming out week after week that featured killers chasing mostly women.
Lee Sobel: Well, one of the things that people always talked about with slasher movies then was how the killer’s knife was an extension of his penis. So did you say, “That’s perfect. That’s what we’re going to put that on the poster”?
William Lustig: Well, the truth is that we had a handshake deal with Joe that his face would be on the poster. Analysis Film Corporation, our U.S. distributor, paid a lot of money for the movie. We didn’t have final approval over the poster, but we had consultation. And when they showed us the artwork, I mean, we were taken aback. And it was something they designed. We had really no input on it. And it was brilliant. It was so shocking, so disturbing, and everything you see there—the bulge in his pants, the positioning of the knife—all of that was very deliberate. The L.A. Times wouldn’t advertise the movie. They wouldn’t even list it in their theater listings. The backlash was really angry backlash against the movie.
Lee Sobel: That must have been difficult to deal with in terms of trying to build your career.
William Lustig: Maniac was getting very negative reviews. I mean, it was getting angry, negative reviews. But again, I never thought of myself as having a career. It wasn’t like I had some career plan or something. It’s funny, because the reviews today are just the opposite. I wouldn’t call them glowing, but they’re respectable. Back then, it was a political backlash against movies like this. And the film was shocking. And it did evoke emotions from many of the critics.
Lee Sobel: And that was the time when people were saying, “Oh, these movies are leading to disturbing behavior.”
William Lustig: They were politically incorrect, they were considered to be the ills of society. Whatever the problems were in society, they believed they were being caused by these movies. So they were really not respected. They were considered to be the punk rock of entertainment, you know? They were films that were anti-everything and so there was a lot of backlash against them.
Lee Sobel: What was the deal with Tom Savini? Why did he disown the movie and then later reclaim it?
William Lustig: Well, you know, Tom sort of went with the flow.
Lee Sobel: He was more worried about his career than you were.
William Lustig: Well, I don’t know about his career, but he was sort of buying into the backlash. I mean, I must tell you that after the first screening of the movie, he came over to me and gave me the biggest hug in the world. “Thank you for not cutting the effects in the movie.” And then later, when all the backlash happened, he sort of went with it. I never took it personally. Tom is a dear friend to this day.
Lee Sobel: So after Maniac, you made Vigilante.
William Lustig: Yes, I was trying to make was an urban Western. I love spaghetti Westerns. That was my thing. So I tried to make an urban spaghetti Western. Whether I succeeded or not is another thing. Spaghetti Westerns, if you recall,
Robert Forster and Fred Williamson in William Lustig's Vigilante
tend to be very extreme. They tend to be somewhat operatic. The movie “Death Wish” had similar urban vigilante themes. But they didn’t do it in the way that I did it. For instance, you have that scene where Bob Forster comes out of jail and there’s this music score, and he comes up to Fred Williamson after crossing through this playground, and says, “I want ‘em.” There’s all these kind of over-the-top things that reminded me very much of what you would see in the Italian spaghetti Westerns.
Lee Sobel: Again, I think Vigilante, it’s like a lot
of your movies. If you just look at specific scenes and sequences, you really have put the money on the screen. The way they’re cut, the way they’re shot, the acting is great. I watched Vigilante and I kept thinking, “This guy’s like a Brian De Palma.” Like Relentless (1989), for about the first 2/3 of the movie, I thought, “This movie’s great. How come I never watched this movie before?” And I started watching some of your movies to prep for this. So I was watching Relentless, and I was thinking, “This is great. He’s got Judd Nelson, the acting is great, and it’s very suspenseful.” About 2/3 of the way through, I got the feeling like “Maybe I’ve seen this movie before.” I kind of lost interest. But is De Palma somebody that would come up as far as somebody you were compared to?
William Lustig: Well, I don’t know about being compared to him , but De Palma was definitely somebody whose movies I loved. I
always considered his movies to be hit-and-misses, but never stylistically. Stylistically, all of his films are great. Some of his films are less interesting than others. But I loved Brian De Palma. I loved his use of cameras, movement. I would have to say a shot like in Relentless when Judd Nelson is running around the edge of the roof probably has a Brian De Palma feel to it, and the way the camera kind of glides across. Things like that. You know, when I approached Relentless and I read the script, I kind of thought of it as an HBO TV movie at the time. I looked at the film as “Oh, it’ll never play in theaters. It’ll only play on video and on television.” And yet the film turned out to be a theatrical success in this country.
Lee Sobel: Yeah, I was going to ask you. I’ve never seen the sequels to Relentless. How did this movie spawn so many sequels?
William Lustig: It made a shit-pot-full of money. The first Relentless was a theatrical success. But on video, it was a monster. The first shipment out the door for video—keep in mind, back then VHS wholesale was $60 a piece—the initial out-the-door shipment was 115,000 units, at $60 each. Do the math. The final cost of the film was $2.2 million. Warner picked it up for foreign and Warner paid like $1.75 million for just foreign video and theatrical, leaving television available. Relentless was a very successful, very profitable film.
Lee Sobel: Did you start to lose interest in directing as your career went on? I guess
Uncle Sam (1996) was the last movie you directed, and I remember hearing on one of the commentaries that you weren’t that happy with it. What happened in your career that you suddenly stopped directing?
William Lustig: Well, the period where my passion sort of dissipated, was when I was replaced as director on True Romance. Yeah, I found the script for True Romance when I was looking for a writer for Relentless 2. I met Quentin and optioned True Romance and developed it, and made a deal with the company that was financing the movie, and, to make a long story short, Tony Scott got his hands on the script, wanted to make the film, I was paid off, and the movie got made. But I had cast it, prepped it, I was within weeks of starting to shoot the film.
Lee Sobel: You cast Christian Slater?
William Lustig: No, different cast. We hadn’t locked in the people yet. But we were within probably about a month from shooting.
Lee Sobel: So you optioned the script before Tarantino had done Reservoir Dogs?
William Lustig: Yeah, he was using his money from the option to shoot his version of Reservoir Dogs that he was planning to do for $30,000. That was his plan back then. Anyway, it changed.
Lee Sobel: So basically this was your moment where you would have gone from the indie ranks to A-list director.
William Lustig: Well, I wasn’t thinking about it as a career thing. I didn’t think of myself as becoming A-list or B-list or C-list. I didn’t think about any of that. All I thought about was, I was so focused and I had the movie in my mind and I was working it all out.
Lee Sobel: So this was before you directed your last couple movies, right?
William Lustig: Right.
Lee Sobel: True Romance came out in ’93, and Maniac Cop 3 came out in ’93, so this must have been around ’91, ’92. So then you went on to make Maniac Cop 3 having had this experience.
William Lustig: And I didn’t want to be there. I was doing it for the money. I was so dispassionate. I just walked through it. And in fact, the final week of the film, because I had these producers on the film who I didn’t really know very well—they were people that were sort of put on the film by the financiers—and they had some very strong opinions. And you know what I finally said? I finally said, during the last week, I said, “Look, I don’t really care. Go ahead and shoot the movie the way you want it.” And I walked. I said, “You know, as long as I’m not going to be penalized financially, you guys can finish the movie any way you want. If you want to edit it in any way, I don’t care.” And that was sort of the way I went through it. It’s totally unprofessional. It’s not something I’m proud of. But it’s something I know I did. And I have to admit it.
Lee Sobel: I hear you have a funny story about the director Abel Ferrara.
William Lustig: This was early ‘90s. We were in Paris at the same time. Both of our movies were being released the same day, Maniac Cop 2 and King of New York were released in France. I was invited to the critics’ screening of King of New York and I was anxious to see it. I arrive at this theater, it’s 10:00 in the morning, there’s Abel with sunglasses on, bombed out of his mind. He sees me, goes, “Oh Bill, thank you for coming. It’s great to see you,” hug and a kiss, telling me all the details of King of New York – “We made the picture for under $5 million. Christopher Walken got $500,000." So he’s giving me this whole low-down before I see the movie. I sit in the theater, they introduce Abel Ferrara, he comes up, he holds the mike like a blues singer, and he starts in, “Thank you for coming to see my movie and make sure to tell your readers that on Friday they should go see King of New York and not Maniac Cop 2. Look, it was his way of breaking my balls. He thought he was being funny. And he was. But he goes in front of this packed theater with all these critics and goes, “Make sure to tell your readers on Friday to go see King of New York and not Maniac Cop 2.
Lee Sobel: One of the things that mystifies me, and I’m sure mystifies you—I think that the direction of your
movies, the look of your movies, the production value on the screen, the way you use the camera, the way you work with actors is just top-notch. I think your direction is fantastic. Did you want to cross over into doing studio movies? Was there a stigma attached to you either because you were making “low-budget” exploitation movies? Was there a stigma against you because of the backlash on Maniac? Does it mystify you that you weren’t the next Sam Peckinpah? Any moron could sit down and watch your movies and say, “This was a great director. He should be making big movies, 'A' movies with really good scripts.” I mean, the direction is sparkling.
William Lustig: Thank you for the compliment. I think I had a personality problem. My personality problem was I always viewed myself as an outsider. I never felt as though I was part of any type of establishment. I was a self-starter. I didn’t take well to authority. I don’t think I do it well today.
Lee Sobel: Which is why you have your own company.
William Lustig: Exactly. I’m not a good employee. That’s just my personality quirk. I don’t get along with others, in the sense of if I’m not in control. When I’m in control of the picture, I’m talking about I’m in control of every single detail. Whatever you want to say about Maniac or Vigilante, Maniac Cop, Relentless, Hit List, all of those films, every single detail on those films—I mean, I had plenty of people who contributed to the films, don’t get me wrong. But I orchestrated, I felt, all the major elements of those films. So
what those films are, for better or worse, they’re my movies. And when you get involved with doing something on a studio level, you have to relinquish that control. And it’s just not in my DNA. I always felt that as long as I could put food on the table and be able to survive, that I’m better off just doing it on my own, by hook or by crook. That’s just always been my thinking. I never had an agent. I’ve never had an agent. I was approached and I just said, “What do I want to give away money for? What do I want an agent for?” A lot of these things probably was not smart.
Lee Sobel: Did you take meetings with studios? Did you ever have any projects in development?
William Lustig: At one time, after I did Maniac, before it was released, Billy Friedkin
screened it and offered me a picture to do at Warner. For a brief period of time, I was out there and I was working. The whole thing kind of collapsed after a couple
of weeks. There are plenty of stories about it. But Friedkin is still alive. He’s a really nice guy. You know what it was? I just felt this wasn’t the right thing for me. It just didn’t feel right. Firstly, I didn’t like the script. But the second thing was,
Lee Sobel: Can you say what project that was? Did it ever get made?
William Lustig: It never got made. It was called Night of the Full Moon.