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Jan. 11, 2019

William Lustig, Director of Maniac [Episode 8]

William Lustig, Director of Maniac [Episode 8]

“Filmmakers like myself, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper and George Romero … weren't working with a rule book. We were out there making movies and doing things that Hollywood would consider forboden. That's what gave these films a resonance to them.”

Bill Lustig is an American filmmaker, director, producer - perhaps best known as the director of the New York exploitation slasher classic, Maniac, starring Joe Spinelli with effects by Tom Savini (who actually is in the film and has a great moment where he gets his head blown off - the scene may rival Scanners as the best exploding head sequence in cinema history).

Maniac was Bill’s first movie and the story behind the making of it was full of timeless lessons in independent filmmaking. There’s a particularly great story about how he and his team premiered Maniac at the Cannes Film Festival (if you can picture Maniac playing at Cannes).  

Fun fact: Bill is the nephew of Jake LaMotta, the boxer who Robert De Niro played in Raging Bull. Also, Bill was originally supposed to direct True Romance, as he was Quentin Tarantino’s first choice as a director - Bill even wrote the ending. Another fun fact is that before horror, Bill started his career in hardcore pornography, and was heavily immersed in the grindhouse culture of New York city’s famous 42nd street - we talk about all of this and so much more on today’s episode of the Nick Taylor Horror Show!

Top pieces of insight from William Lustig:

  • Get the train moving - When pitching a movie, it’s critical to remember that there are thousands of other people with scripts and ideas, just as good, if not better than yours. What separates those who get funding versus those who don’t, is momentum and tangibility. If all you have is a script or an idea for a movie, in the eyes of investors, you pretty much got nothing. For producers to be interested, they need to know you are capable of bringing this vision to life and seeing it through to completion, which is why they look for signs that the project is moving forward. The metaphor of getting the train out of the station is a good one, because to wait for everything to be perfect and for producers to jump on board before you go into production is a fool’s errand because the sheer act of going into production indicates to producers that the movie is real, and that you’re a worthwhile investment because you can make things happen. Movement is critical in this regard, and frequently, directors will pitch producers who say no at first, but jump back on board when the movie further in development - so the other part of this is no might not always mean no, it could mean, not now.
  • Don’t listen to Bill, never give up! I gotta disagree with a piece of advice Bill gave and that is that if you’re not making movies by 30, you should give up. Let’s examine some case studies: Wes craven was 34 when he made Last House on the Left; Ridley Scott was 40 when he made his first major film, The Duelists, and then went on to do Alien; Mick Garris was 33 when he first began screenwriting and didn’t get to direct until he was 37, with Critters 2; Terry Gilliam was 35 when he made his first feature; Alejandro González iñárritu was 37 when he did Amores Perros; Ang Lee was 38, when he did his first film; Sam Mendes was 34 when he made American Beauty. The list goes on, point being: it’s never too late.
  • Never underestimate the power of showmanship: When Bill was screening Maniac at the Cannes Film festival, one of his reps insisted that it be shown at the smallest theatre available. This seems entirely contrarian, BUT, the purpose of the small screen was to ensure that the movie would sell out and there would be lines around the block creating a visual spectacle and demand for the movie. This gets attention at a film auction circus like the Cannes Film festival - where it’s imperative that you make a splash to be noticed. Furthermore, he gave most of the tickets away to local high school and college kids to boost the youthful energy of the audience so the producers and investors in the theatre would experience their energetic reactions and make them way more interested in acquiring the film. These are brilliant strategies, and really underscore the importance of the atmosphere that you must create around your film at all times. What it taught me, was that directing doesn’t stop when the movie is done and you shout: ‘that’s a wrap.’ You have to be a director on and off set and constantly create a spectacle. As a result of this stunt, Bill and his team walked out of Cannes with a major deal for Maniac which set him up for a successful career in filmmaking.