GRINDHOUSE RELEASING INTERVIEW: CHRIS INNIS ACE & OZZY INGUANZO
As a member of American Cinema Editors (ACE) I have become acquainted with fellow members Chris Innis and her husband Bob Murawski. The pair garnered Academy Awards for co-editing the 2010 Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker. I soon learned that the couple also runs two premiere cult distribution companies, Grindhouse Releasing and Box Office Spectaculars Inc. The team remasters and releases DVDs and Blu-rays of vintage cult films that are often overlooked by mainstream distributors and forgotten by most audiences. Recent Grindhouse releases include The Swimmer (1968) starring Burt Lancaster, written by Eleanor Perry and directed by Frank Perry based on the John Cheever short story and The Big Gundown (1966), a spaghetti western starring Lee Van Cleef (of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The company also specializes in quirky independent films of the 1970s like Massacre Mafia Style and Gone with the Pope directed by crooner/actor Duke Mitchell as well as horror titles such as I Drink Your Blood, Cannibal Ferox and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, among others.
I originally wanted to interview Bob and Chris together, but at the time Murawski (Sam Raimi’s longtime editor) was on location in New Zealand editing the continuation of The Evil Dead film series, Ash vs. Evil Dead which premieres on Starz TV on Halloween 2015. In Bob’s absence Chris invited filmmaker/novelist Ozzy Ingaunzo to join the discussion. Inguanzo directed an exceptional documentary/interview with The Big Gundown co-star Tomas Milian for the film’s extensive disc extras.
Stephen Myers: Chris, what is the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?
Chris Innis: My parents actually didn’t take me to see movies all that often. So most of the movies I saw, like classics, I saw on TV or in second or third run. The first movie I remember seeing was a disaster film and that’s all I’ll say. All I remember is being too young to appreciate it. I had an aunt who used to pile us all into her car to the drive-in. Or somebody’s parents in the neighborhood would have a truck that we’d all pile into the back of. We pretty much didn’t pay much attention to the movies themselves because there were so many kids screaming and yelling and having a good time. We were just having fun playing on swing sets that they used to have in front of the drive-in screens or whatever.
SM: We used to go to the drive-in often, usually a double bill and sometimes a triple bill. Many times it would be an Italian sword-and sandal epic. I remember one of them had a visual impact on me, The Colossus of Rhodes (1960). I later found out it was directed by Sergio Leone.
CI: A lot of these guys started out in sword-and-sandal movies. And actually the spaghetti westerns, before they were known, were also something that were put out on the drive-in circuit as filler. I don’t think the studios really appreciated the art form they were going to become until much later. It’s kind of shocking that The Big Gundown (1966) was never officially out on DVD at all.
Ozzy Inguanzo: I remember seeing a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South (1946) in the theater, which is not available [on DVD]. I haven’t seen this movie since I was five years old and it had an impact on me. It’s kind of about storytelling and it combined animation with live action and music. The other one was The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I remember the impact that had on me too. Those two films.
CI: In a weird way, the reason I’m probably in the film business is because I was largely denied films as a kid. At about 15 or 16, I got a job in a movie theater where I received complimentary tickets as a perk and then got to see as many movies as possible. And then of course in film school at U.C. Berkeley and CalArts [California Institute of the Arts].
SM: So you just sort of overdosed.
SM: For me it was that I never had enough even though we went to the movies often. When I got into college that was my real introduction because I headed up the student union film program [at the University of Georgia]. They were only doing one movie every weekend. I thought “There’s over 40,000 students here. We should have movies every night!” So that’s what we did [my friend Larry Estes and I].
CI: My husband Bob (Murawski ACE) did the same thing too. He was programming cult films in college at Michigan State. Anything he couldn’t see in the theaters. He lived in a small town in the “thumb” of Michigan. There was one walk-in theater and one drive-in that showed mainstream movies. He had to drive two or three hours to see any specialty movie. Even then, there would be one movie on one screen. I grew up in San Diego so it was a little different. We had multiplexes.
SM: What are some of your favorite genres of film?
CI: I pretty much like a little of everything. Actually, the movie genre you just mentioned the sword-and -sandal is my least favorite. I don’t know why. There are some that are really great that I enjoy. The classics like Spartacus (1960), of course. But it’s not my favorite genre. Every other genre I find something to like. And I love westerns which makes me maybe different from most women. I really enjoy westerns. It was really fun to see The Big Gundown for the first time, shocked that it wasn’t available, and just blown away by the movie. I was impressed by the screenwriting in particular by Sergio Donati — it seems like a Sergio Leone movie without Sergio Leone because it’s a lot of his collaborators. That shows how strong these collaborators were even though he’s not present — Sergio Donati, the screenwriter, and, of course the composer, Ennio Morricone, cinematographer Carlo Carlini, title designer Iginio Lardoni. And the guitarist, Alessandro Alessandroni.
OI: Lee Van Cleef.
CI: Van Cleef, of course! “Mr. Bad” or “Mr. Ugly” depending on which trailer you see (laughs).
SM: Ozzy, what about your favorite genre.
OI: I don’t have a particular genre. I’m similar with music. If something has an impact on me and the story and characters pull me in, that’s it. When I saw The Big Gundown, I was floored at how great the storytelling was. And how it takes this “good guy/bad guy” archetype and kind of turns it on its head.
SM: The other thing that is really brilliant is Tomas Milian’s performance. As great as Van Cleef is, if you don’t have that trickster character and if you don’t have somebody great in that role, then it doesn’t work.
SM: Chris, how did you and Bob meet?
CI: We met editing actually, through director Sam Raimi. I had worked with Sam on a movie called The Quick and the Dead.
SM: A western!
CI: A western! Yes. And it was a more modern take on the western. I was working with [editor] Pietro Scalia ACE, who I assisted for five or six years. At the point where I was growing into becoming an editor Sam Raimi flipped a fake gold coin, a prop from one of his films to me. He said, “Hey, buddy. How would you like to edit on a TV show of mine?” Pietro and I actually did the pilot for Sam’s American Gothic (1995-1996) for Universal/CBS and then I went on to work on the series. Then Bob was brought on to do a title re-design for the series and to do recaps at the head of each show. So we started to work together. Then I went off to England to work on a movie for about a year, came back, and we just started hanging out and the rest is history. We kept working together and we just became a couple. We’ve been together ever since.
SM: I’ve heard you use the term “orphan movie.” Could you explain what that means?
CI: I probably use it differently than other people. To me an orphan movie is a movie that hasn’t been distributed, has been forgotten, or hasn’t been finished and is sitting in someone’s garage like Gone With the Pope. In the case of The Big Gundown, I think it was sort of an orphan at a studio, strangely, just sitting on a shelf and not being fully distributed. In the late ‘sixties when they picked up this film for distribution I don’t think they truly appreciated what they had. I think it was considered a “B-movie.”
SM: And also because it was cut down, my first suspicion is that they just wanted to fill out a drive-in bill.
CI: Yeah. And at the shortest running time possible to get the most plays out of it. A lot of times they would re-name films just to get another run out of it at the drive-in theater. Bob, who worked in distribution in Detroit, sometimes had the job of re-naming a film so people didn’t know they were seeing the same film over-and-over again. Anyway, an orphan film is one that has either been forgotten or neglected. Sometimes the films that are more interesting are cult films or exploitation films. They weren’t intended for American audiences or to do anything but collect money or to fill time. So I think that’s why they had a kind of mercenary attitude to the way they treated the cut. When they made this film [The Big Gundown] it was just before the release of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which was a big success. I don’t think they foresaw the art and appreciation for these films that would come over time with repeated viewing; or saw that these films had motifs and really talented collaborators like Leone and Morricone.
SM: And they developed a fan base, too.
CI: Right. I think they just didn’t understand them for the American market. So the cuts they made to them were based on expedience for getting quickly to the scenes and not about the characters. Morricone’s music is played like funny ducks quacking, stuff that you wouldn’t expect that’s really playful. That’s totally different from American westerns. I love that Italian westerns are so full of life and fun. Even though the plot is pretty thick in this movie, you kind of forget it because you are so absorbed with these two characters and how entertaining it is to watch them foil each other, especially Milian foiling Van Cleef. He’s always a couple of steps ahead and I love how the editing [by supervising editor Adriana Novelli and Gaby Peñalba] in the film showed that too, such as the scene where he has the encounter with the snake. The audience sees him setting it up, so when he does pull his trick it makes it so much more entertaining when it plays out.
OI: I love the idea that Grindhouse exists because now there is a place where movies can hopefully find some kind of platform to be released.
SM: Just The Big Gundown is huge.
CI: When I saw this movie and The Swimmer (1968), which are the two we just put out from Columbia Pictures/Sony, I was floored that more people hadn’t seen them – that I hadn’t seen them! I had heard Cristi [Maria Cristina Brancucci] singing “No never! No NEVER!” from the “Run Man Run” vocal on so many Morricone compilations and I had never seen The Big Gundown. When I finally saw the movie I said, “That’s so great. I love that score and how it resonates as a theme throughout the movie. ”
OI: I had seen Inglorious Basterds (2009) [in which director Quentin Tarentino had used The Big Gundown song main title] and I thought “that sounds familiar to me.” I didn’t realize it had been sampled so well. It makes quite an impact. And then the movie itself is just fantastic.
SM: I’m curious about Duke Mitchell, director of Gone With the Pope. I know he was a singer who played the “Dean Martin” half of Sammy Petrillo’s Jerry Lewis impression in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). What was his career after that?
CI: He was called “Mr. Palm Springs.” He was a lounge singer and he became friends with a lot of restaurant owners there and here in L.A. You can see some of these locations in the movies and he utilized them really well. I love that aspect of those movies. They are almost documentaries of that time period with the red upholstered furnishings in the restaurants and cocktail lounges. He was apparently friends with Frank Sinatra and they hung out a little bit, according to Duke’s son Jeffrey Mitchell. As two Italian singers from the East Coast they had a lot in common. So he had a lot of buddies in the entertainment business and I’m sure they were trying to make something happen and I would presume he auditioned quite a bit at that time. He was kind of a hustler, in a positive way. There was a Jimmy Durante special where Duke plays Jimmy Durante. Before we had indie filmmakers he was like a John Cassavetes of exploitation.
SM: You’ve already answered my next question about whether there was already a cut of Gone With the Pope or if Bob had to work from scratch.
CI: Yeah, there was already a rough cut. And Bob Leighton, who is Rob Reiner’s editor, had worked on a cut long before he was a famous editor. I think it was one of his first films as picture editor. So did Robert Florio ACE. Both great editors. But on this movie the shooting ratio was so tight it was almost 1-to-1. Duke would turn on the camera and tell the actor, “Say your line.” The actor would say their line and you would hear “Cut!” Sometimes you could steal a reaction if you were lucky. But Bob had carefully put this together over many years in his spare time. And all of us were involved in one way or another because at Grindhouse usually everybody gets dragged in. He put it together on film. We even had a flatbed in our garage. There were scenes that weren’t there before or just needed moving around for transitions, music that was missing. It took a lot of time working with film, finding trims, and was even harder in a garage with all these pieces and parts that weren’t necessarily originally organized in the best manner.
CI: Bob found it. Actually the distributor he was working for in Detroit did, a guy named Bob Mason, who Bob worked for right out of college. This guy had a warehouse full of films that would run the drive-in circuit. Bob, in working for him, would sometimes re-title the films so they could send it out around to the same theaters so they could get another run. He saw this film and just thought it was bizarre. A print of it existed in Bob Mason’s attic. Bob Mason was living in the worst part of Detroit where there would be burned-out houses next door and headless bodies left on the lawn in the morning. He was kind of like an old west figure determined he was going to live in this house. His whole attic was filled with films and this was one of the films in it. So we started to research, got in touch with the people involved in it originally, including the son of the filmmaker, Amos Sefer. Bob, my husband, had put a trailer for An American Hippie in Israel on YouTube and people had seen the trailer. This cult movie fan in Israel, Yaniv Edelstein, found a 35mm print subtitled in Hebrew. They started screening it in Tel Aviv and it became a midnight movie hit there. People started talking back to the screen so it was a lot like The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Tel Aviv and it became more and more popular. That’s how something becomes a cult movie. One person takes an interest and other people grab onto it.
SM: The Big Gundown was a movie a lot of people wanted to see. The Swimmer is a little more obscure even though it has a great cast and it’s based on a famous story by John Cheever. How did Grindhouse get involved in restoring those movies? Did Sony have the elements easily at hand or did you have to do some digging to find those?
CI: We saw The Big Gundown and The Swimmer at American Cinematheque way back. When we came out of the theater I remember saying to Bob,”Wow, those movies aren’t available. Let’s put them out!” He said, “Oh yeah, right. We’re gonna get a Columbia film.” And back then I was still fantasizing about it because I love the idea of rescuing these films. Those two films were kind of B-movies but they were also kind of classy. They were kind of great and really needed to be seen. So we made a deal with Sony. As far as the elements, we did have to rely on Sony to go into their vaults and we dealt with two wonderful people over there: Grover Crisp [Executive Vice President Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering] and James Owsley [Technical Specialist, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering]. They’ve done the restoration work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and other Columbia titles. They know all the elements and what they have and don’t have. We worked with them and got the best elements they had.
SM: Did you have to go to Italy for The Big Gundown?
CI: No, but we were in touch with Alberto Grimaldi [the producer] and his people as well. In the case of The Big Gundown, the original negative was in Italy. Sony went through their vaults and James Owsley found a 1966 and a 1991 two-perf IP (interpositive) that had been made. The IP was in good shape. That’s the one that we used the most but we had to kind of mix-and-match. I think you can still see we’re going to different elements. There’s places in the film you can see negative damage and sadly, with these “orphan films” if they get forgotten too long they don’t get restored. Also there’s damage done when they get cut. You can see it, for example, where Cucillo and Corbett first meet in the shaving scene. It sort of goes into a “dupey” blow-up, and it’s the best we could do. That was an area where both the original negative and the IP had been damaged. All the elements were pieced together in telecine. We also worked with colorist Dan Hermelin at Ascent Media/Deluxe in North Hollywood. Sometimes when you use modern techniques it can look a little “Crayola-ey” and we wanted to bring it back to the juicy Technicolor two-perf look that was mastered in Italy back in the day. It’s amazing to me how those films looked then. It was really important to us that it look as good as possible, given what we had to deal with. The three versions we restored at Sony were the international Italian dub, the longer U.S. version with the three additional scenes that we found using audio from a 16mm Canadian TV print and the U.S. theatrical version. So those three all exist in restored form and the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] has honored the film by screening the restored full-length version.
SM: I want to commend you on the extras you put together on this. As a small company to have done something that is, I think, on the level of Criterion. Or even with the soundtrack CD maybe beyond, in some ways, what Criterion does. It’s an amazing job.
CI: Both of us are obsessed with details. Bob, being denied these movies in his youth, wanted to present the best possible version to collectors because that’s really who the audience is for these films. We love finding these things. It’s almost like a mystery to try to find the actors and crew sometimes and to hear their great stories. Tomas Milian! I was lucky in finding Tomas and getting him on the phone. He was such a sweetheart. And he was saying, “However I can help.” And we knew Ozzy here was from Florida where Tomas now lives. And they’re both Cuban so we thought, “Hey, perfect match.”
OI: To give you a little background, for years I had worked on the Spiderman films [those directed by Sam Raimi]. I had worked with Bob and Chris on those films. Whenever we weren’t working on Spiderman you could find Bob and/or Chris in the cutting room on off hours working on The Beyond, The Big Gundown, Cannibal Holocaust, and Gone With the Pope. Their great passion is contagious. Bob said to me a while back, “Have you ever seen The Big Gundown? I said, “No.” He said, “You’re from Miami, right? You’re first generation Cuban. Do you know Tomas Milian?” I said, “I don’t know him. I know of him.” He said, “I’m going to release it theatrically and then try to put it out on Blu-ray. Would you be interested in interviewing him?” I said, “I’d love to meet him and get his thoughts.” So I went down to Miami during the holidays and Chris had contacted Tomas and she had given me his information. I called him and immediately we just hit it off. I went down to see him in his little apartment in Miami Beach. He welcomed me into his home, introduced me to his wife and he was sweet, amidst all his art and his awards. It was like being in an artist’s living space. Very cozy. He proceeded to tell me how he got into acting. I had done research about his career but to hear it from him was really amazing. He was so open about not just working on The Big Gundown but the players involved in making these movies. They were consummate professionals and very passionate about their work. He was at a point in his life when he was reminiscing about his entire career. It was very interesting to hear a professional actor in his late seventies discuss his career. I was originally just sent down there to hear his thoughts on The Big Gundown. It was great that Bob and Chris said, “You have two-and-a-half hours of Tomas. Let’s share that with people and put out a featurette on Tomas Milian’s career” which had never been done. There had never been a platform. I think it’s a wonderful addition to these types of films like The Swimmer and The Big Gundown to have these featurettes to complement the feature. And Tomas was wonderfully open about his career.
SM: I was aware of who he was as an international star because of Italian movies, but his whole background was amazing. As great as all The Big Gundown extras are, that one stood out to me.
OI: A lot of people know Lee Van Cleef and he shares the billing with him — in some posters top billing. It’s great to learn who he is and how he got there. He’s very well known in Italy. He’s an icon there. He starred alongside Orson Welles in Tepepa (1969) and he was in Traffic. (2000). It was great to hear about his journey starting at the Actors Studio, moving to Italy and how he came back to the states to ultimately make American films which was his original intention. It was great to hear a man in his seventies discuss how he initially set out on one path, only to be presented with another, and yet still have an amazing career in Italian cinema and in this movie. It’s fantastic that Grindhouse gave us a platform to tell his story.
SM: It was also good that you are both Spanish speakers and that you are also both Cuban Spanish speakers so if there were any idioms…
OI: That did help a lot. Sometimes he would go into Spanish. When he came from Cuba he was selected by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg to join the Actors Studio. Ironically Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) was his original inspiration to go into acting. Joining the Actors Studio was a big high point for him. He’s a very, very special person. Very nice.
CI: I love that he worked at the Actors Studio. People who came out of there were some of the best actors ever. I love Tomas’ stories in Ozzy’s piece about working with Strasberg and other actors getting mad at him because he had all this natural ability because he just believed who he was. What he learned there is so important to why his characters are so enjoyable.
SM: You can tell that he invests every fiber of his being into every character.
OI: And he transforms himself into all these different characters. This is before Johnny Depp, before these kinds of actors reached A-level fame. People like Johnny Depp are seen as movie stars today but back then character actors never really received the type of recognition that they deserved. It was great to be able to hear his story.
CI: He’s doing back stories on all these characters and figuring out why they’re doing what they’re doing and who they are, why they’re wearing what they’re wearing. That makes a huge difference when actors are talking with the costume designer [Carlo Simi, who also handled production design]. Like the little holes in his costume where he’s put the knife previously. Actors like Karen Black did the same thing building their character’s back stories. They come into a scene knowing what’s happened in their head between those scenes. Tomas says he doesn’t even necessarily discuss this with the director. The actor’s responsibility is to figure this out. Those decisions are really helpful and integral to the story. He’s really thinking, he works hard and it pays off.
OI: He’s thinking about it all the time.
CI: Speaking of the Actors Studio and Elia Kazan, he plays a [behind-the-scenes] part in The Swimmer weirdly. But that’s the dark side of Elia Kazan. In both these films we somehow had a link to one of the greatest directors. But there’s also that infamous dark side which is what happened if you watch the five part 2-1/2 hour documentary we did for The Swimmer.
SM: Ozzy, I wanted to congratulate you on your book Zombies on Film: The Definitive Story of Undead Cinema (Rizzoli/Universe, 2014).
OI: Thank you.
SM: Not only is it a coffee table book with great pictures and graphics but it is also a great work of film scholarship. You’ve done a fine job on the history of what I call “B.R.” and “A.R.”: before Romero and after Romero.
OI: That’s right. Because most people, especially younger people, just associate zombie movies with The Walking Dead (2010-) or World War Z (2013). It was great to tell the story of the evolution of this genre, where it came from and how it became what we know it to be today. In fact, many old zombie films can also be considered “orphan movies.”
SM: Chris, is there anything coming up from Grindhouse in the near future that you can talk about?
CI: No (laughs). We don’t like to jinx anything. Bob and I talk about things we’d like to do. We also have our real world jobs. Right now Bob’s working with Sam Raimi in New Zealand on a TV pilot called Ash vs. Evil Dead that will be on Starz premiering this Halloween 2015. It’s bringing Bruce Campbell back as Ash. As for our Grindhouse/Box Office Spectaculars, anything we put out on DVD we are also working on putting out on Blu-ray. There is another film of Tomas Milian’s that we have the rights to and we will be putting that out sometime in the near future as well.
At the time of our interview I had not yet viewed The Swimmer (1968) or another Columbia title Corruption (1968), a British horror film starring Peter Cushing. I have since reviewed both. You can read The Swimmer review here and the Corruption review here. Check out the full Grindhouse catalog at grindhousereleasing.com.