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Interview: Bob Clark

With a career that stretches across 40 years and almost every genre of filmmaking, Bob Clark has become one of Canada's most artistically and commercially successful directors—despite being an American. Since his arrival north of the border in the early 1970s, Clark has changed the face of horror filmmaking with groundbreaking cult efforts like Deathdream and Black Christmas made his mark with Porky's--still the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time and unwrapped the universally loved A Christmas Story, one of a select handful of bona fide holiday classics. Maintaining strong roots in Canada, Clark continues to work on a variety of films, and thanks to a handful of remakes and the preservation of DVD, he is experiencing an unprecedented renaissance of some of his earliest successes.

During phone interviews with on July 29, 2005 and Oct. 23, 2006, Bob Clark talked about how he came to Canada, the controversy over his films, and the plans he was making just before he was tragically killed in a car crash on April 4, 2007.

How did you get your start making films?

Well, I really started out with a pair of films that I never talk about because they don't exist anymore—thank God! It was in Fort Myers, Florida, for a man who had a combination indoor tomato plant, storage house and movie studio. We made these movies for no budget essentially—I should write a book about them, they were quite amazing.

So, my first movie was Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. My brothers and the Gotch family put up $40,000, and we made the movie. Ted V. Mikels agreed to distribute it in the States, but somehow it got to Canada and to Peter James, John Trent and David Perlmutter at Quadrant. They bought the film and distributed it, and it did very well in Canada.

How did Quadrant end up financng your anti-Vietnam horror film Deathdream?

After Children, Qudrant gave me the money for Deathdream. It was a challenge shooting away on location the whole time, but I had a great cast. We shot it in Brooksville, Florida, but it's entirely a Canadian film. When I went up to Canada to edit it, I fell in love with Toronto and became a landed immigrant. That was in 1972 or 1973.

So, your first film shot entirely in Canada was Black Christmas?

That's right. Black Christmas is both a cult film and a successful commercial film, and has been considered by quite a few people as the seminal slasher horror. After I made Black Christmas, John Carpenter asked if I was going to do a sequel, but I said " No, I don't intend to I'm not here to make horror films, I'm using horror films to get myself established. If I was going to do one, though, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it Halloween." As John has pointed out, the movie he was offered already had that title, and he wrote a screenplay. And then several movies ripped Black Christmas off.

I was recently looking at Black Christmas, and I was struck by how truly up-to-date the film was—this movie could have been made last year! Even the clothes and hairdos have come back—they're retro!

Did you find it difficult to break away from the horror genre?

Not really, I was extraordinarily lucky. I did my first non-horror film after Black Christmas and then came Murder By Decree. It's a thriller of sorts, certainly not a horror film, but I had that incredible cast. I had such extraordinary luck. Look at Black Christmas who I had—Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, all at the beginning of very strong career. Murder By Decree was just unreal, it was like a dream—I couldn't believe this was happening to me. I was in my early 30s. And then came Porky's.

When  Porky's came out, some Canadian critics accused the film of misogyny.

That's just crazy. Some people said it was racist or anti-Semitic, but in fact, the film has a very strong bias against anti-Semitism. People were railing about how racist the characters are, but this was 1954 we're talking about, and we made it clear that they were contemptuous of the racism around them. I have a line in Porky's for one of the cops played by Art Hindle, where he says, " OK boys, see you later, gotta go find some niggers." I had such hysteria from the studio over that. I said " Guys, look, I cut immediately to Billy and Tommy looking at each other, rolling their eyes. What are they going to do in 1954, jump down and preach to this cop?" 20th Century Fox said, " But he's a positive character!" I said " I know, fellas, that's the point!" It's just telling the plain truth that's the way things were. We finally kept it until the end, but they really wanted it out.

And it's the same thing with the women. It's not the women who are the subject of ridicule in Porky's, not at all! It's continually the men who made to be fools, while the girls are allowed to express their sexuality. Wendy, the key female character, is supposed to be promiscuous—although she's not, really—but the guys still love her and respect her. Still, the film had its supporters: Arthur Miller loved it, Norman Mailer was a huge fan, David Mamet, even Pauline Kael.

Was Porky's based on your teenage experiences?

For the most part. I've always been appalled by racism—it's part of my nature that human beings are human beings.

Where I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, we were lower middle class, but we actually had a maid.  I used to go with the maid on weekends to what would have been called " Coloured Town" to play with the kids there—I loved them. When I moved to Fort Lauderdale in the 1950s, it was a restricted community, and I went to a segregated high school. There were " No Jews Allowed" signs on the beach still, and I didn't understand this, it shocked me. I lived on the west side of town, which was near " Coloured Town" then, as well as the Florida Braves baseball stadium. I was quite a savage little being—we were very poor, my father died, my mother was a barmaid, so I pretty much ran the streets. I used to climb up on the top of the fences of the baseball stadium, and run along, and the guards would chase me. The black kids called me " Cheetah," and they would meet me later, and say " Hey, you're Cheetah!"

How do you feel about Porky's when you look back on it?

Sure the film was outrageous, it was the most outrageous film of its kind, but it was the truth. Animal House is a wonderful film, I love it, but Porky's doesn't deserve to be compared to it. Animal House was a caricature of college, but Porky's was the first one to play us the way we were and I think it did it damn well. I would pull back a little if I was doing it again today, but we were so far over the top anyways.

The odd thing is that A Christmas Story has been the film that people come to me about the most, but in the last five or six years that started to change. Porky's was almost universally despised, but I swear to you, it's almost overtaken A Christmas Story in popularity, and it's all positive responses, too—30-year-olds who grew up with it, saying " What? Why didn't they like it?" It has become hugely admired, and I'm not surprised. That sounds very immodest of me, but I do get a lot of people coming up to me about it, and it's nice I'm gratified by that. It has gained respect.

Was Porky's your last Canadian film?

Well, after Porky's was a huge hit we bought a house in New Hampshire—Massachusetts actually, but we still retain our residence in Canada and always have. I've done more work in Canada over the years—all my post production, except for something like two films have been done there, and my last five films have been shot there as well—I never really left!

There are all kinds of Canadian flavours in my later films. We just got distribution for one of my films, Now & Forever, which is entirely a Canadian film. They tried to convince me to move the production to Montana, but I said " No way! It was written by Bill Boyle, who's from Saskatoon, and it should be shot here with the Cree Nation!" I was the one who insisted we stayed there, and I'm delighted we did, because it's wonderful. I'm a city person and I've never lived in the prairies, so I didn't realize what it was like—but wow!

I've been very fortunate in intercutting between big studio films and cable films. Some of these films of mine are not really known—I have a feeling they are going to get discovered someday. I did Arthur Miller's The American Clock, and got to work with Arthur Miller, for God sakes! He loved the movie and he loved some of the humour I interjected. It's about coming out of the Depression, with a wonderful cast. I've done three or four other cable movies that I'm very proud of.

Could you give our readers an idea of the directors and films you respect?

I don't have any specific director. I admire Hitchcock, but more for his whimsy, his mind was so rich and his characters are so outrageous. That was the beauty of Hitchcock for me, and  Psycho is clearly a superb film. I was also impressed by what Friedikin accomplished with The Exorcist.

I was very influenced by Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes movies, they were remarkably well done. They were incredibly good, considering they had like $50,000 budgets.

Do you have any plans to return to horror in the future?

I'm writing and directing a remake of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things in 2006. It's an Anglo-British-Canadian production, and it's filming in Vancouver. I believe that if you're going to do a remake, the core of the movie should be there, so you'll be surprised how the remake adds a new dimension to the story, but still retains the flavour of the original. we're putting some real intense effort and money into creating the effects. The comedy is very satirical.

Quite a few of your earlier films are getting the remake treatment!

We got some interest over a Black Christmas remake, and when Copperheart and 2929 Films brought in Glen Morgan and James Wong to do it, we decided to develop it into a feature. Also, Goldie Hawn's son Oliver Hudson and Eli Roth optioned Deathdream, and Howard Stern is doing Porky's, but I've had nothing to do with those two remakes at all. I've had strong pressure from a company to remake Murder by Decree, but I'm not going to do it. We did it for under $4 million in 1978, and I couldn't improve it. Where could they ever get another cast like that? I wouldn't do Murder by Decree or A Christmas Story—although no one's ever even asked about that one.

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