Published on January 19th, 2021 | by Richard Gary0
Interview: Filmmaker Richard Griffin
Our Richard Gary sits down for an interview with indie director Richard Griffin. Griffin has made a lot of films exploring different genres and ideas.
I’m a fan of Rhode Island-based indie director, Richard Griffin. His love of cinema in general has greatly influenced the plethora of genres he has covered, including comedies, horror, Shakespeare-sourced and pangender sex. Many of his 35-plus releases will be discussed below. Richard has a love of Italian arty and horror, the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, and even Bugs Bunny. Below is a list of questions I sent to Richard, and his responses that were returned.
Richard Gary: Let’s start with an oft-asked first question: if there was one film you saw in your youth that made you say, “I want to do that”? If so, which one was it and why?
Richard Griffin: It’s strange, because I cannot think of one single movie in particular that made me want to make movies. My father was, and still is, a complete and utter film lover, and would take me to see all types of movies, from great Hollywood fare to foreign art-house cinema. My mother really gave me my love of horror films. My father grew up in abject poverty, and I think he had seen enough horror for a lifetime, so it was my mother that introduced me to horror cinema. I will say that seeing (Ralph Bakshi’s) Wizards for the first time in 1977 really blew my mind when it came to movies. That was the year everyone was taken with Star Wars, but for me Wizards was a real turning point.
RG: Your first feature was an update on Shakespeare’s infamously most violent and bloody play, Titus Andronicus (2000). That seems like an odd choice to start, with something that complicated.
Richard: Titus Andronicus actually isn’t my first feature, not by a long shot. It is my first feature listed on the IMDb. My first feature was done in 1988, and was called The Death Card. All my early works, from 1987 to 2000, were shot on what would now be considered vintage cameras, and I consider them more to be sketches than anything else. But I must have, between 1987 and 2000, directed over 20 short films, and two features… none of them listed on the IMDb. As for why Titus Andronicus — I just love the story, and I think it’s a very underperformed, under-loved Shakespeare play.
RG: The next few films were your training wheels, like Feeding the Masses (2004), Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon (2005; aka Seepage!), Pretty Dead Things (2005) and Splatter Disco (2007), and yet all got some people noticing. How did it feel to start getting your fingers dirty on the way films are made, and building up a stable of regular actors?
Richard: Well, I only had one ambition at the time, and that was to make one film that would get wide distribution, and we did with Feeding the Masses. After that, it’s all about just having fun making movies. I started doing this stuff back in the early ‘80s, making Super 8mm films with friends. And I’ve never had the ambition or drive to work in Hollywood, or whatever. What I do is the film equivalent of that guy who sits in a park with his canvas, brushes and oils and does paintings of trees just for the pleasure of it. The things I did learn from making these early features was how to schedule a movie, and how to work with a crew. I was always so used to doing everything myself, and that took a bit of getting used to.
RG: Things seem to have turned a corner and you started to hit a stride with Beyond the Dunwich Horror (2008) and Nun of That (2008). Did those films “feel different” in their creation than the previous ones? How?
Richard: With Dunwich and Nun of That, the real pleasure came from having a much longer shooting schedule than the other features. Dunwich was shot over eight months, and Nun of That, I believe four months. It was great just having the time to make sure everything was as perfect as it could be, considering how low the budgets were. We also were getting some truly amazing actors, who had a lot of faith in us and what we were doing. It stared to really feel like a nice little family at that point.
RG: Around this time you really started to build a troupe of strong actors who would continue to appear in a number of your films, such as Sarah Nicklin, Michael Reed, and Ruth Sullivan, with Michael Thurber (founder and artistic director of the Theater Company of Rhode Island) joining shortly with The Disco Exorcist (2011). Did that make a difference in the way you approached your filmmaking?
Richard: Well, yes. We all became friends and would hang out between shooting days. These are also extremely professional actors, so it takes a lot of the load off of you as a director. They would come to the set prepared, know their lines and their characters, and just work and do some amazing performances. And because we were all friends to some extent, it made the set a lot lighter, which — of course — makes the work considerably more pleasurable.
RG: Nun of That got some really nice reviews and notices for you. It’s a film that I see mentioned when your name crops up in conversation. When you look back on the film today, what do you think of it?
Richard: I love it, but maybe for different reasons than the audience. I can never have the pleasure of seeing one of my movies as an actual movie. With Nun of That, I co-wrote it, edited it, and directed it. I know that film so inside and out, it stops being a movie. The pleasure of that movie comes from my memories of making it. I wrote it with my husband [Ted Marr], so that was extremely wonderful. And everyone in the cast and crew just “got it.” Nun of That was just a really nice ride.
RG: The first film of yours that I saw and became aware of you was The Disco Exorcist. It was pretty reminiscent of some of the sexploitation films coming out of Europe in the 1970s, like The Devil’s Plaything (1973) . Were you thinking of these as an influence or as a homage for this film?
Richard: There really weren’t any influences with that movie. The idea popped into my head one day with a tagline before anything else, even before a title. It was “Michael Reed IS The Disco Exorcist,” and I cracked up laughing. In about five minutes, I had a rough plot, and then I told that idea to Tony Nunes, and he started writing the screenplay.
RG: While The Disco Exorcist is quite racy, it is all straight sex, and it that would be true for your work for a few years before you started more of a pan-sexual exploration of cinema. Did you see that coming at this point, or were you just tied to the story in this case?
Richard: Well, we’ve had gay characters pretty much since day one, in movies like Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon and Pretty Dead Things. Why I started becoming more explicit about it was that I was watching a lot of LGBTQ+ films, and they seemed so tame. Like, it was okay to have a gay character, but you had to de-sexualize them to make them palatable to a mainstream audience. That’s the main reason I did Strapped for Danger.
RG: You have often stated that you don’t consider yourself a horror director, and certainly a chunk of your films are not, but starting with The Disco Exorcist, you presented a string of films that could be counted as horror, or at the very least thriller-themed. What is your thoughts on that?
Richard: Well, I just don’t like to be called a horror director, because it’s misleading. I’ve directed comedies, action films, science-fiction, and just straight-forward dramas. I just really don’t want to be put in a box in any aspect of my life.
RG: The Disco Exorcist, a very broad comedy, was followed by the serious Exhumed (2011), brilliantly written by Guy Benoit, which I consider one of your strongest films; I often compare it to (a more successful) Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978), which again, is a departure from your straight-up horror and comedy to-date canon. How did it feel different making this kind of film?
Richard: The screenplay. The screenplay was the best written script I have ever read. And it was because of Guy’s screenplay that we were able to get people excited about the project. It wasn’t farcical like my films before it, but a truly brilliant screenplay full of complex characters and themes. It was one of the rare scripts that you read and it just jumps off the page. It presents itself. And everyone was 100 percent on board on that movie, because of the quality of that script.
RG: Murder University (2012) is a bit of a new chapter after the taste-change of Exhumed, returning a bit to a thriller of ritual murder with a dark humor to it. You added Samantha Acampora, Elyssa Baldassarri, and brothers Jesse Dufault and especially Jamie Dufault to your troupe, who would appear in your next string of features. What do you think they contributed to your art that made you want to keep them around (and I’m glad you did)?
Richard: Once again, it’s finding actors that “get it.” I’m a difficult person to work with sometimes, because I can easily sense when actors are on a set for reasons other than just the movie, and that — to be honest — pisses me off. If you’re going to be there, be there for the movie. Don’t be in a movie because you think it’s going to be another notch on your resume, or you just want to kill time, or you want to fuck your co-star. When you do that, you’re just screwing over anyone on the set who actually cares about the project. And those actors gave a shit about what they were doing, and they were pros.
RG: A lot of your films are homages to styles of films you like (more on that later). What films influenced Murder University, which has a stunning surprise early on in the film?
Richard: You know, when you’ve seen as many movies as I have, they all just blur together into one big movie. When I approached (playwright/screenwriter/director) Lenny Schwartz about doing the script, I just told him I wanted a slasher film set at a college in the ‘80s. But I don’t think we actually ever really talked about influences. It’s hard to say the movie is like ‘80s slasher films, because it’s so berserk. It has a musical number in it. I don’t think you’d see that in a movie like Final Exam or Graduation Day. It’s its own thing, regardless of genre conventions.
RG: You went even further on a limb with your next film, the weirdly titled (yet accurate) Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (2013), which was originally titled Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead. It was more of a return to the broad horror comedy. Do you approach doing a comedy differently than more serious ones like Exhumed?
Richard: In one regard, yes. Because you want the performances to reflect the material. But even in an over-the-top movie like this one, I still wanted to make sure there wasn’t any real winking at the camera stuff, and I truly love the performances in that film. In many ways, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead is almost a return to the Super 8 film I made with my friend when I was a kid. I love the energy of that little movie.
RG: Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead was quite the homage to director Jesse Franco. How was he influential on you, and why?
Richard: Jess Franco is a true cinematic artist who always stayed true to his vision and his obsessions. You know within five minutes of watching one of his films that he directed it, and you can’t say that about 99 percent of film directors. He also made his films with such passion. You can love or hate his films, but you can never say the man didn’t love making movies.
RG: Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead is also the first of your feature films that truly introduces a gay couple as major characters. Had you been biting the bit before this and found this as your chance (as it would become a major theme going forward), or was it more organic?
Richard: I try to make movies that the 17-year-old version of me would have enjoyed. And, lets face it, there were no gay characters in Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s all about representation with me. I would have loved to have seen a happy, healthy gay couple in a horror film… but when I was growing up, that just wasn’t a thing. So to me, it’s all about making the movies I would have wanted to see as a teenager.
RG: Speaking of which, next up was your infamous sci-fi horror short, Crash Site (available on YouTube), one of my favorites of your shorts. I’ve probably watched this more often that I should. Yet you once told me that this film did not get a great reaction upon its release. Why is that, and has that response improved over time?
Richard: No, it was hated, and it still is hated! And I love that! Why didn’t people like it? Who can tell. I make movies exclusively for myself, and if anyone else digs them, that’s just gravy. I have a rather particular sense of humor, and I guess that it doesn’t translate to the majority of people, but who cares? I know there was a review of Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead that said the movie “Set the LGBTQ agenda back a 100 years”. Now that’s complete and utter Internet hyperbole, but for some people if you don’t show LGBTQ+ characters as completely saint-like, they’re going to be offended. But, you know… most people watch a movie and they get no reaction at all. It’s nice to see people being passionate in their reactions.
RG: Normal (2013) was the next serious follow-up to Exhumed. Did you feel it was time to take a dip in the intensity pool at this point to shake things up?
Richard: Not intentionally, no. I mean, honestly I have no plan from one movie to the next. If the screenplay catches my attention, and I feel like it’s worth spending six months to a year of my life on, I’ll do it. And Lenny’s screenplay had a very profound effect on me. My husband jokes that I tend to go from a serious picture, to something completely goofy, but that’s not really the case. I have definitely directed more goofy movies than serious ones, but that’s really just how I look at the world.
RG: I do believe this is Michael Reed’s finest work to-date that I have seen.
Richard: Michael’s performance is chilling, and beautifully shaded. It was a very difficult role to get across, because the character could just come across as completely distant and hateful, but Michael infused a lot of humanity into the part.
RG: Stylistically, it’s also different than your previous films in that it flips about in time a bit and is bitter and deeper, on a psychological level. Who or what influenced it?
Richard: Honestly, I rarely think of influences when prepping a movie. I just try to find the tone of the screenplay and be true to it as best I can. Lenny writes very “visual” screenplays, which is unusual for a playwright who typically gets very hung up on the spoken word. Lenny writes in images, which is perfect for a screenplay.
RG: And speaking of different, the next of your feature films is Future Justice (2014). This is more in the realm of post-apocalyptic. It’s also your first sci-fi since Atomic Brain Invasion (2010). Why go in that direction at that time?
Richard: I always wish I could give more of a deeper meaning to this, but honestly, it’s just what pops into my head on any given day. It must have been a “Lets direct a post-apocalyptic film” kind of a day. This basically just comes from the fact I work in instinct more than intellect!
RG: Future Justice both starred and was written by Nathaniel Sylva, who also occasionally works for you as Assistant Director. Did he have more to do with this film that just writing and starring?
Richard: Nat also choreographed all the fight scenes and did a brilliant job! Truly Nat’s fingerprints are all over this movie. A tremendous talent!
RG: Around this time you started to pick up other “regulars,” such as Anna Rizzo, Steve O’Brion, Carmine Capobianco (the lead in 1987’s Psycho’s In Love), Jamie Lyn Bagley and Derek Laurendeau. Comments?
Richard: Well, you need to inject some fresh blood into the works from time to time. These are all brilliant stage actors, and in the case of Carmine, I had known him from his cult classic Psychos in Love, and really wanted to work with him. He is a true sweetheart, and a lot of fun to have on a set. What more could you ask for?
RG: Hammer Films with a twist comes to mind when I think of The Sins of Dracula (2014). The twist is both the inclusion of comedy and the influence of Christian films from the 1970s. Is there a specific film that brought this to mind, or the genre in general; and what ever happened to those films, you think?
Richard: That entire film started with one idea that I bounced off writer Michael Varrati. And the idea was this: “What if a church came into a little bit of money, and wanted to make a film to scare its teenage members away from the evils of premarital sex? And what if they thought that what scared teenagers the most in 1975 was Dracula?” … honestly, this is how my brain works.
RG: In The Sin of Dracula, Michael Thurber plays a very Christopher Lee version of the Count, with an enormous Bela Lugosi-type ring. He is nearly completely silent. What was the meaning for this?
Richard: The meaning came entirely from Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), where Dracula never says a word. I find Dracula films where Dracula actually talks to be extremely silly. But in Prince of Darkness, he’s more of a symbol of death, and probably the most terrifying version of Dracula ever shown in a movie.
RG: One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Acampora is trying to seduce Jesse Dufault in a classic floating-outside-the-window trope, and then just says, screw that.
Richard: It was funny in the screenplay, but Sammi truly made it one of the best scenes in the movie. She has second-to-none comedic timing.
RG: When you do the mash up with the straight couple and the gay couple, depending on interpretation, this could be saying either “both are equally healthy,” or because it’s pre-marital, “both are equally unhealthy.” Did I get that right?
Richard: Well my thing was that the straight couple were having boring, vanilla sex, while the gay couple were swinging from the ceiling.
RG: Speaking of comedy, Lenny Schwartz’s Accidental Incest (2014) is arguably one of the most outrageous film you had done to-date, overall. Why did you choose to do that one?
Richard: I saw the play performed in New York City, and after it was over I knew I had to make it into a movie. It was such a profoundly unusual, yet perfectly balanced mix of humor and pathos. One of the many things I love about Lenny’s plays is that he’ll have you laughing one minute, and before you know it you’re crying your eyes out.
RG: I thought it was very brave performances by Johnny Sederquist and Elyse Baldassarri, considering the amount of nudity involved. Did you need to give any special direction for that? Or were you given any demands by the actors?
Richard: No. They were just extremely brave. But thankfully both Elyssa and Johnny knew each other before the movie, so there was a level of comfort there that you typically wouldn’t get with two actors who just met on the set.
RG: Did Johnny have any issues playing a relatively straight hedonist?
Richard: Not in the slightest. Johnny attacked that role with a great deal of skill.
RG: Your next feature length release is probably the one I have rewatched the most, Seven Dorms of Death (2015). You take a cliched story of a “cursed play” that leads to its actors being killed off one by one, but you take two different motifs and mash them together. While in the style of the Italian cinema of the 1970s and ‘80s [the name is obvious a take-off of Fulci’s 1981 The 7 Doors of Death, aka The Beyond], you also take it purposefully to an amateurish level with multi-levels of set-up mistakes:, such as people wandering off the set. What was your thoughts behind that blending process?
Richard: It was mostly all in the screenplay by Matthew Jason Walsh. Then when we would block a scene, we’d think of ways to screw the scene up but without taking it too much over the line. It was a hell of a lot of fun to make that movie, and I think it shows in the final result.
RG: It also contains one of your most famous lines, spoken by Aaron Andrade in his defining role as Detective Vargas, “Fuck you, skeleton!” How did that line originate?
Richard: It was right there in Matthew Jason Walsh’s screenplay! And actor Aaron Andrade completely knocked it out of the park!
RG: This was followed by a more serious nunsploiation horror flick, Flesh for the Inferno (2015), a subgenre that seems to have gotten a bit of a resurgence lately. But what is it with you and nuns (e.g., Nun of That), and other religious-based themes (e.g., The Disco Exorcist, Exhumed, The Sins of Dracula)?
Richard: I don’t know! I wasn’t really raised with any religion at all, but I think nuns have this weird element of looking both comedic and scary all at the same time. Plus, we have the costumes, so it saves money!
RG: After all the blood and gore in the past few releases, you completely switched gears and went back to your roots by doing a rather loyal telling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017). Why the change and why that particular film?
Richard: I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare’s work, and I wanted to do another Shakespeare piece after Titus Andronicus, but I wanted to make something more fun that could also be very visual, and obviously the magical aspects of Shakespeare’s play lends itself to that style.
RG: Long Night in a Dead City (2017) is more of a bunch of set pieces staged around a bookend story, which is quite different than your previous features. It’s almost a dreamscape. Why did you choose this at that time, and how did you get that effect of that kind of visualization?
Richard: Long Night in a Dead City is an oddly autobiographical film. And for years I was trying to get it off the ground. But when I would write the screenplay it was more of a realistic reenactment of the events as they actually happened, and it just didn’t work. It lacked the emotional weight from its attempts at realism. What Lenny Schwartz did that was so brilliant was to make it like a dream, which is really how we perceive our youth as we grow older. He basically wrote a very impressionistic film, which is what I’m more comfortable directing than something that exists purely as reality.
RG: This film kind of ended a phase of yours that I would call horror of different subgenres, but then you seemed to start afresh with a short series of wild sex-oriented comedies that what can only be described (by me, paraphrasing Mel Brooks) as comedic gay romps in a garden: the crime spree Strapped for Danger (2017) and sci-fi/superhero-themed Code Name: Dynastud (2018). What was the thinking behind the switcheroo?
Richard: I grew tired of horror films and I wanted to make some more playful types of movies. As I said before, I make films I would have wanted to see as a 17-year-zold. And man, I would have loved to see a gay sex comedy at 2 AM on Cinemax!
RG: Oh, by the way, was Sarah Reed’s accent om Strapped for Danger supposed to be New York or New Jersey? Her snort was quite funny.
Richard: I told her before we started rehearsals, “Come up with an annoying voice.” And boy did she ever. It’s supposed to be a little Long Island sounding. It makes me laugh, and that’s really what counts!
RG: One of the thoughts I had is that this is the flip of Thelma and Louise, or most chick flicks, where the men are the heroes (or anti-heroes), and the women are the jerks.
Richard: That’s probably screenwriter Duncan Pflaster’s take on it. That’s the interesting thing for the movie with me. All my films have a strange sort of moral compass. Except for this one!
RG: In Code Name: Dynastud, what’s with the character Vargas’ (Aaron Andrade) voice? I ask in a friendly way, out of curiosity. He sounds so different than in Seven Dorms of Death.
Richard: Well, as you may have noticed the entire film is dubbed. I wanted an Enter the Ninja (1981) vibe where the dubbing isn’t as off as a Godzilla film, but you’re like “What the hell is up here?” Which leads us to Vargas. I wanted some big indicators that the movie was dubbed so people wouldn’t be all like, “This is a mistake!” So, I asked Aaron to do a completely different voice. And he came out with that, and I almost had a stroke laughing. Do you know of the actor Matt Berry? He was in “The IT Crowd.” I think Aaron was doing a riff on his voice. British actor with a very pompous voice.
RG: While the Strapped for Danger sequel is in the line-up, meanwhile you recently released the Gothic-toned Before the Night is Over (2020). Would you say this was influenced by Whatever Happed to Baby Jane? (1962) or possibly Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)? What else influenced the feel of the film?
Richard: The way I typically describe Before the Night is Over is that it’s “If Tennessee Williams had a stroke and wrote a horror screenplay.” That script was literally written on instinct. Plus, I have a lot of fun writing southern characters. I don’t know why, I just always have!
RG: I’m assuming the front of the house was in Rhode Island?
Richard: Yep! You’d never believe it!
RG: I found the end to be a bit vague.
Richard: When I was writing the script with Lenny, I wanted it to have a very Euro vibe. So, one of the things I’ve always noticed and loved about Italian horror films is that they don’t actually make a lick of sense. So, I made it a point not to explain almost everything. But, much like the run time of the movie, a lot of that film is a reaction to Hollywood’s insistence on having films that are way too long, and explaining everything to the point of boredom. I mean, what the hell does the ending of City of the Living Dead [1980; aka Gates of Hell] mean?
RG: Most independent films today seem to rely on the big-name cameo to draw in the fans. You don’t do that often, and the only big cult names I can think of in that area are Lynn Lowry in Beyond the Dunwich Horror, and Debbie Rochon, who rather than having a cameo was such a major part of Exhumed (2001); she was also in Splatter Disco with Lowry and Ken Foree of 1979’s Dawn of the Dead.
Richard: As much as I loved working Ken and Lynn, I don’t find the money spent on “name actors” to be worth it. I’d rather give an upcoming actor their shot.
RG: What was it like working with Ms. Rochon?
Richard: A true pleasure. Debbie is a complete pro, and she’s also amazingly wonderful to have on a set. A professional all the way, and very funny and passionate. What more could you ask for in an actor?
RG: Along with directing, you have also been doing quite a bit of acting in both film and on stage in Rhode Island. Is it hard to let go of the reins to let someone else direct you, or do you chime in with ideas; or do you just go with the flow?
Richard: To be honest, I love acting more than directing. It’s very pure and immediate. And I love being clay in a director’s hands.
Note: Richard has a new feature film out since these questions went out called Strapped for Danger II: Undercover Vice.